Arab Spring exposes Nasrallah’s hypocrisy

by Hamid Dabashi

(originally published on al-Jazeera)

Hassan Nasrallah is in trouble. This time the troubles of the Secretary General of Hezbollah, which were hitherto the source of his strength, are not coming from Israel, or from the sectarian politics of Lebanon. Seyyed Hassan’s troubles, which this time around are the harbingers of his undoing as an outdated fighter, are coming from, of all places, the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring, the transnational uprising of masses of millions of people from Morocco to Oman, from Syria to Yemen, is making the aging warrior redundant – his habitually eloquent tongue now stuttering for words. Two years ago, he thought he got away with rejecting the democratic uprising in Iran (whose brutal ruling regime is his principle patron and financier), as a plot by the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. And he did – aided and abetted by the moral and intellectual sclerosis of a segment of Arab intellectuals who thought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Islamic theocracy were the vanguard of “resistance” to US/Israel imperialism in the region and thus should be spared from criticism. And then Tunisia happened, and Egypt, and Libya, and Bahrain, and Yemen – and then, Hassan Nasrallah and Ali Khamenei’s nightmare, Syria happened. It is a sad scene to see a once mighty warrior being bypassed by the force of history, and all he can do is to fumble clumsily to reveal he has not learned the art of aging gracefully.

Deja vu

When Hasan Nasrallah came to the defence of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria, signs of frailty were all over the old fighter’s countenance. He asked Syrians for patience. He admitted mistakes had been made by Syrians in Lebanon. He promised Assad would do reforms. He pleaded for time. Deja vu: For an uncanny moment the Hezbollah fighter sounded and looked like the late Shah of Iran days before his final demise early in 1979: desperate, confused, baffled by the unfolding drama, worriedly out of touch with what was happening around him.

“Hassan Nasrallah,” according to an Al Jazeera report on 25 May 2011,“has called on Syrians to support president Bashar al-Assad and enter into dialogue with the government to end weeks of ongoing protests across Syria.”

This is a far different cry than when the democratic uprising in Iran started in June 2009 and Nasrallah readily dismissed and ridiculed it as an American plot. These were Arabs up against their corrupt and cruel leaders, not “them Persians” whose money was good but their historic struggles for their civil liberties a plot by the Saudis, the Israelis, and the US.

“Bashar is serious about carrying out reforms,” he was now pleading with his audience, “but he has to do them gradually and in a responsible way; he should be given the chance to implement those reforms.” When Nasrallah made these remarks more than 1000 Syrian civilians had been gunned down by Bashar Assad’s army and security forces, serving the Assad dynasty for about forty years.

More criminal atrocities were to follow, forcing Syrians to abandon their own homeland and flee to Turkey. The cruel and gruesome torture and murder of Hamza al-Khateeb was still in the offing, where “in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces,” as reported by Al Jazeera, the 13-year-old boy’s “humanity [was] degraded to nothing more than a lump of flesh to beat, burn, torture and defile, until the screaming stopped at last.”

Nasrallah, who could not care less for such revolting behavior by his patrons, now for second time in a row, was siding with brutal, vicious tyrants and their criminally insane security forces against the democratic aspirations of their people – once in Iran and now in Syria. A “freedom fighter”?  Really? What kind of a “freedom fighter” is that? Forget about the Shah, Hassan Nasrallah now sounded more like President Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) who once famously said about the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza (1896-1956) that he “may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Hassan Nasrallah too did not care if Khamenei and Assad tortured and murdered their own people – so far as they kept him in business.

“Peaceful Syrian citizens,” declared a statement by hundreds of Syrian filmmakers and their colleagues from around the globe, “are being killed today for their demands of basic rights and liberties. It is the same oppression and corruption that kept Syrians prisoners and swallowed their freedom, properties and lives for decades, that is assassinating their bodies and dreams today.” Hassan Nasrallah would have none of this, as he had no patience or sympathy for the kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered bodies of scores of young Iranians during the civil rights uprising of 2009. A belligerent segment of Arab and American intellectuals (ignorant or indifferent to the historic struggle of Iranians for their civil liberties) sided with him in dismissing the Green Movement in Iran as a Saudi-CIA plot. Shame, everlasting shame on them!

“Peaceful Syrian citizens,” declared a statement by hundreds of Syrian filmmakers and their colleagues from around the globe, “are being killed today for their demands of basic rights and liberties. It is the same oppression and corruption that kept Syrians prisoners and swallowed their freedom, properties and lives for decades, that is assassinating their bodies and dreams today.” Hassan Nasrallah would have none of this, as he had no patience or sympathy for the kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered bodies of scores of young Iranians during the civil rights uprising of 2009. A belligerent segment of Arab and American intellectuals (ignorant or indifferent to the historic struggle of Iranians for their civil liberties) sided with him in dismissing the Green Movement in Iran as a Saudi-CIA plot. Shame, everlasting shame on them!

The only language that Hassan Nasrallah understands is the language that keeps him in power, condemning the US, the EU, Israel, and the Saudis – all hitherto truisms that have, thanks to the Green Movement and the Arab Spring, lost their grip on reality even more than Nasrallah.


Nasrallah’s predicament with Syria had been moving towards him apace. He has been dillydallying since the commencement of the Arab Spring as to how to calibrate his positions. When Tunisia happened he said,“we must congratulate the Tunisian people on their historic revolution, their struggle, and their uprising.”

He thought this was happening only to European allies, and he thought this was good. When Egypt happened, he said, “in Tunis and Egypt, tyrants have gone away… we call on the people of Egypt and the people of Tunis to unite, because division could be a prelude to the resurrection of the ruling regimes.” This is when he thought these were happening only to the US allies. Nobody was watching him, but he was already in trouble. How come he never sent any encouraging word to “the people of Iran,” when they did precisely what Tunisians and Egyptians had done – rising up against tyranny?

He (and he had his allies on this matter among the leading Arab and non-Arab “left”) categorically denounced the Iranian uprising. He sided with identical tyrants like Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. He said Iran was in the capable hands of his friend “Grand Ayatollah Khamenei”. He did not even blink on al-Manar when he said that. It was payback time for him.

When Libya happened, Hassan Nasrallah said, “a group of young men and women rose and they were faced with bullets; war was imposed on the popular revolution. What is taking place in Libya is war imposed by the regime on a people that was peacefully demanding change; this people was forced to defend itself and war broke out in the east and the west, with warplanes, rocket launchers, and artillery. It brought back to our memory the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and all of Israel’s wars. Such serious crimes should be condemned and the revolutionary people of Libya should be helped so as to persevere.” How splendid!

But what is the difference between Iranian or Syrian and the Libyan people? In Iran and Syria too: “a group of young men and women rose and they were faced with bullets.” Were arbitrary arrest, torture, and even rape not “imposed by the regime on a people that was peacefully demanding change” in Iran and then Syria too? Is Iranian or Syrian blood any thinner than Libyan blood in the mighty warrior’s estimation? Is there a word for this barefaced hypocrisy in any language? What sort of “resistance” is this – and resistance to what?  Resistance to Israeli expansionism by a band of militant thugs maiming and murdering their own people in Syria and Iran? Is this the choice that our people must make?

When Yemen happened, Nasrallah said, “it is not possible to keep silent about killing and oppressing the demonstrators. We praise the steadfastness of the Yemeni people and their commitment to their peaceful movement, although we know that Yemen is full of weapons.” But how come it is possible to “keep silent about killing and oppressing the demonstrators” in Iran? No, sorry, he was not silent at all about Iran. He was positively elated and quite verbose that his dear friend Ayatollah Khamenei had managed to oppress those identical demonstrators. As masses of millions of Iranian were pouring into streets calling the presidential election of 2009 a charade and a fraud, Hassan Nasrallah was quick to congratulate Ahmadinejad, calling the result a “great hope to all the mujahedin and resistance who are fighting against the forces of oppression and occupation”. As even more millions of people took to streets risking arrest, incarceration, torture, and even cold-blooded murder, Nasrallah assured the world that “Iran is under the authority of the Wali Al Faqih and will pass through this crisis.” He never praised “the steadfastness” of the Iranian people “and their commitment to their peaceful movement.” Why? What’s the difference between Iranians and Yemenis?

When Bahrain happened, Nasrallah said, “why is the movement [in Bahrain] condemned and the injured accused? Just because they are Shias?… We’ve always been with the Palestinian people, but the sect of the Palestinian people was never an issue for us. Nobody asked about the confession and sect of the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples; we have an obligation to stand by the downtrodden. Iran stood by the people of Palestine, Tunis, Egypt, and Libya; was this based on secular considerations? I find it very weird to hear some people calling on Egyptians to take to the streets, Libyans to kill Gaddafi, but when Bahrain is involved, their ink dries out, and their voices dampen.”

This was indeed very ecumenical of the Hassan Nasrallah. But was his own ink dried and his own voice dampened when Iranians were being clubbed to death, tortured, and even raped by the security forces of his friend “Ayatollah Khamenei?”  How come he did not feel obligated to stand by millions of human beings for whom spoke two bona fide Shias, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi? Were they not Muslims, Shias, human beings? And yes, Iranians have “stood by the people of Palestine, Tunis, Egypt, and Libya” – but not because they are Muslim, or Sunnis, or Shias, but based on their shared aspiration for a free and democratic future. Will Hassan Nasrallah have a place in that democratic future, with this kind of record, of siding with criminal thugs that deny and seek to prevent it?

And then Syria happened, and Hasan Nasrallah began stuttering. “First, we should be committed to Syria’s stability, security and safety.” Syrians’ security and safety – or Bashar al-Assad’s? Scores of Syrians are being gunned down, tortured, and killed. There is a massive humanitarian crisis on the Syrian-Turkish border, finally forcing Turkey to sever its ties with Syria. Syrians are fleeing their homeland en masse, fearing for their lives from Bashar al-Assad’s murderous army. What about their security and safety?

“Second,” he said, “We call upon the Syrian people to maintain their regime of resistance, as well as to give way to the Syrian leadership to implement the required reforms and to choose the course of dialogue.” Really? Isn’t that what Clinton also says about Bahrain? How come if Clinton says it about Bahrain it is bad and imperialistic, but if Hassan Nasrallah says it about Syria it is good and revolutionary – while both Bahrainis and Syrians are being slaughtered by identically corrupt ruling regimes? The magnificent aspect of the Arab Spring is that it exposes the identical hypocrisy of both the US (on Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen) and Hassan Nasrallah (on Iran and Syria).

“Third, we as Lebanese shouldn’t interfere in what is going on in Syria, but let the Syrians themselves to deal with the issue.” Truly? How come “you as Lebanese” interfere anywhere from Morocco to Iran, from Bahrain to Yemen, but not about Syria? Why? Aren’t Syrians humans? If you shoot them do they not bleed? If you torture and mutilate them do they not suffer and die? “Fourth, we should reject any sanctions led by US and the West asking Lebanon to abide by them against Syria, which is the most important goal of [Assistant US Secretary of State Jeffrey] Feltman’s recent visit to Lebanon.” Why? How come UN resolutions against Israel are good, but UN resolutions against Syria are not good? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Right?

Promoting democracy?

There is an old expression in the film industry, “continuity clerk”, which refers to a member of the crew responsible to ensure that there is continuity and consistency – especially in matters of dress, make-up, etc. – in successive shots of a film, particularly when these shots are filmed on different days. The grand Hezbollah leader badly needs a “continuity clerk”. You cannot wear a revolutionary garb one day and then a pathetically apologetic disguise another.

That Hassan Nasrallah is not altogether aware of what is happening around him is also evident in the fact that it seems just to have dawned on him that the US is “seeking to hijack the wave of pro-democracy popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world.” Of course they are – but what is Hassan Nasrallah doing to safeguard and promote it, siding with Bashar al-Assad and Ali Khamenei? Hassan Nasrallah is now outmaneuvered, checkmated, made redundant by history, by, of all things, a magnificent Arab Spring, in which he has no role, no say, and no decision. Nothing. He could and he did dismiss Iranian uprising and he got away with it.  Syria and the rest of the Arab Spring are doing away with him. He has failed the test of history—of knowing when to abandon tyrants benevolent to him for their own reasons but abusive and criminal to their own people.

It is not accidental that Iran’s Ahmadinejad is on the same page with Hassan Nasrallah in defending the Syrian regime – for they are all made of the same cloth. What is happening in Syria, Ahmadinejad believes, is a plot by a number of countries in the region, “because Syria is in the frontline of resistance and the Islamic Republic is standing shoulder to shoulder with the Syrian state and nation”? Not so fast. The Syrian state is now murdering the Syrian nation. You cannot be on both sides. Siding with the regime is endorsing its murderous record of killing its nation, as indeed the Islamic Republic, on Ahmadinejad’s own watch, has done against Iranians, with Nasrallah’s approval.

Ahmadinejad’s protestations in support of the Syrian regime, however, should not muddy the clear conception of why the Islamic Republic supports Hamas or Hezbollah. In defending the allocation of funding for Hamas and Hezbollah, the military strategist of the Islamic Republic make no bones about why is it that they support the Palestinian and Lebanese causes. “The Palestinians are not fighting for Palestine,” one leading Iranian military strategist is seen recently explaining to a captivated audience, “they are fighting for Iran; the Lebanese are not fighting for Lebanon; they are fighting for Iran. To have the courage to say this and the courage to demonstrate this means to provide a strategic conception [of what we do].”  Does Hassan Nasrallah know this, or is he taking advantage of the Islamic Republic the way the Islamic Republic is taking advantage of him. And what do millions of human beings caught in this massive hypocrisy have to do with these political and strategic machinations?

During protests in Iran, when scores of young Iranian men and women were being brutally tortured and killed in the dungeons of the Islamic Republic, Nasrallah was not keeping silent. He was voluminously loquacious in siding with tyranny, exposing his utter and pervasive hypocrisy.

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.


من يخاف من أحلام جعفر بناهي؟

ت. 1960) ومجموعة من زملاءه عن محكمة إيرانية في العشرين من ديسمبر الماضي. والتهمة المساقة هي تشويه صورة إيران والقيام بدعاية مغرضة ضد النظام. نظام يبدو أنه أفلس إلى هذه الدرجة فأصبح يخاف من أفلام بناهي التي تتناول بالدرجة الاولى قضايا إجتماعية. وكأن هذا النظام يريد أن يطلق رصاصة تغتال أحلام جعفر بناهي، الأحلام المستوحاة من الواقع، كما يقول في الرسالة التي وجهها إلى مهرجان البرليناله السينمائي (إنعقد بين  10-20 فبراير 2011).

بدت إزابيلا روسوليني، رئيسة لجنة التحكيم الرئيسية في مهرجان هذا العام، تغالب دموعها وهي تقرأ رسالة المخرج الايراني جعفر بناهي عضو لجنة التحكيم الغائب في حفل إفتتاح المهرجان في العاشر من الشهر الجاري أمام جمع من السينمائيين الاوربيين والعالميين كالأخوين كوين. فصدع صوت التصفيق في القاعة حالما إنتهت من قراءة رسالته، تلك القاعة  التي تتسع لأكثر من الف شخص ووقف الجميع تحية لهذا المخرج الذي بقي كرسيه كعضو في لجنة تحكيم هذا العام خالياً، إلا من اليافطة التي تحمل هذا الإسم. كما خصصت الكثير من الصحف الألمانية تغطية واسعة ضمن صفحاتها لهذا المخرج وأعماله. 

في فبراير من عام 2010 أعلن منظمو مهرجان البرليناله عن نيتهم إستضافة بناهي في مهرجان هذا العام كعضو في لجنة التحكيم. بعد فترة وجيزة من هذا الإعلان ألقي القبض عليه وبدأت محاكمته في إيران ليصدر حكم بحقه وبحق مجموعة أخرى من العاملين في مجال السينما كانت تعمل معه. بناهي طوى خمس عقود من حياته. كرس حوالي الثلاث منها للسينما كمنتج ومخرج وحصلت أفلامه على جوائز عالمية.

درس بناهي الذي ينحدر من أصول أذربيجانية الإخراج التلفزيوني والسينمائي في طهران وعمل كمساعد مخرج مع المخرج الإيراني الشهير عباس كيروستامي. في عام 95 كان أول تتويج عالمي لأعماله في مهرجان كان حينما حصل فيلمه ”البالون الأبيض“ على جائزة الكاميرا الذهبية، تلاها حصوله  عام 97 على جائزة مهرجان لوكارنو عن فيلمه ”المرآة“ ومن ثم عام  2000 حصوله على جائزة الأسد الذهبي في مهرجان البندقية عن فيلمه ”الدائرة“. وفي عام 2006 حصل على جائزة الدب الفضي في مهرجان البرليناله عن فيمله ”اوفسايد“.

يبدو بأن النظام الايراني على حافة الافلاس! وإلا لماذا يعتقل ويوجه تهمة لبناهي بأنه كان يخطط لإعداد فيلم عن الثورة الخضراء  التي كان قد دعمها بصراحة؟ كما أيد بناهي موسوي بعد الإنتخابات الأخيرة. هذا السينمائي الذي قبض عليه هو وزوجته وابنته في مارس في العام الماضي وسجن دون أي محاكمة أو تهمة توجه إليه لمدة ثلاث اشهر لم يتوقف عن رفع شعار الحرية. فدخل في إضراب عن الطعام ولم يفرج عنه إلا في شهر يونيو بكفالة تصل قيمتها إلى 200 الف دولار أمريكي وكان قد فقد الكثير من وزنه بعد الإضراب عن الطعام ليبدو كالهيكل العظمي عندما خرج بعد سجنه. كما منع من مغادرة إيران إلى أن تتم محاكمته. فكانت المحاكمة في ديسمبر والحكم بالسجن ومحاولة لإغتيال أحلامه، كما ألمح هو. هذه الأحلام تحدث عنها بناهي في رسالته الموجهة إلى جمهور مهرجان البرليناله مع العلم أن ذلك ربما يكون له عواقب وخيمة إضافية عليه وعلى عائلته.

ولعل بناهي يجد عزاء في حصول مخرج إيراني آخر وهو أصغر فرهادي على جائزة الدب الذهبي هذا العام عن فيلمه ”طلاق نادروسيمين“. حاول فرهادي توجيه كلمة حذرة تحية لجعفر بناهي ربما لأنه يعرف أنه بعد ساعات قليله سيكون هو الآخر بين مخالب النظام الإيراني.

لعل المخرج الإيراني لن يحتاج عشرين عاماً أخرى من الإنتظار كي يسمح له بعمل فيلم أخر. ألم نقل بعد الثورة التونسية أن ما حدث في تونس لا يمكن أن يحدث في مصر! فلنقل إذا أن ما حدث في مصر لا يمكن، إلا أن يحدث في إيران وكل على طريقته.

هنا كلمة جعفر بناهي التي قرأتها إزابيلا روسليني في إفتتاحية مهرجان برلين السينمائي البرليناله مترجمة إلى العربية نقلاً عن الألمانية عن موقع البرليناله :”في عالم صانع السينما يتمازج الحلم والواقع ببعضهما البعض. ويستغل صانع السينما الواقع كينبوع للإلهام، فيرسم الواقع بألوان من نسج خياله. وبهذا ينتج فيلماً يحمل آماله وأحلامه بين طياته ويجعلها مرئية للعالم.

الواقع هو أنني منعت من مزاولة مهنتي كمخرج دون أي محاكمة وذلك منذ خمس سنوات. والآن تمت محاكمتي بشكل رسمي ومنعت للعشرين سنة القادمة من مزاولة هذه المهنة. وعلى الرغم من ذلك سأستمر بخيالي في تحقيق أحلامي وصنع أفلام بهذا الخيال مستوحاة من هذه الأحلام. كصانع أفلام تتناول بالدرجة الأولى قضايا إجتماعية، علي أن اتعامل مع الوضع الجديد، الذي يفرض علي ألا اصور مشاكل وهموم الحياة اليومية لأبناء شعبي. إلا أنني لن أتوقف عن الحلم بأن جميع هذه المشاكل بعد عشرين عاماً ستختفي وأنني سأتمكن عندئذ، من إخراج أفلام عن السلام والرفاه الإجتماعي في بلدي.

الحقيقة أنهم يمنعونني ولمدة عشرين عاماً من التفكير والكتابة. لكنهم لن يتمكنوا من منعي من الحلم وستحل الحرية والتفكير الحر مكان الملاحقات. ولعشرين عاماً سيمنعونني من أن أطل على العالم ولكن أتمنى بعد أن أخرج من السجن أن أسافر عبر عالم، تكون قد سقطت فيه الحدود الجغرافية والعرقية والايديولوجية. عالم يعيش فيه الناس سواسية وبسلام دون الإلتفات إلى عقائدهم ومعتقداتهم.

حكم علي بالسكوت لمدة عشرين عاماً ولكن في أحلامي أصرخ باحثاً عن زمن نكون فيه متسامحين مع بعضنا البعض، زمن نحترم فيه آراءنا المختلفة ونعيش واحداً من أجل الأخر. في نهاية الأمر يقضي الحكم علي بأن أقضي ست سنوات وراء القضبان. في السنوات الست القادمة سأعيش مع الأمل، بأن تتحقق أحلامي. أتمنى أن يقوم زملائي المخرجين في كل زاوية من العالم، بإخراج أفلام عظيمة بهذه الفترة بحيث أشعر بالحماس والرغبة في العيش في هذا العالم الذي حلموا به بأعمالهم.

من الآن فصاعداً وللعشرين عاماً القادمة حكم علي بالسكوت. وأجبر بأن لا أرى وأجبر على ألا أفكر. وأجبر على ألا أصنع أفلاماً. ساواجه الواقع والسجن وأتمنى بعد تحريري أن أشاهد أحلامي في أفلامكم :  على أمل أن أجد هناك ما سلب مني.“

جعفر بناهي

After Mubarak, Fighting For Press Freedom in Egypt

by: Sharif Abdel Kouddous

(originally published at The Nation)

Under Mubarak, state-owned media was a propaganda arm of the government, parroting party dogma while dismissing public criticism and political opposition. During the 18-day uprising that toppled him, state TV tried to downplay the size of the demonstrations, depicting protesters as funded, inspired or infiltrated by foreign elements ranging from Israel to Iran to Al Qaeda.

Television is by far the most important medium in Egypt. A recent public opinion survey by the International Republican Institute found that 84 percent of the population relied on TV as their main source of information during the revolution. While state TV acted as a government mouthpiece, under Mubarak, licenses for private-owned satellite TV stations were reserved for rich businessmen with varying degrees of closeness to his regime. Private channels were closely monitored by the State Security Investigations branch of the Interior Ministry.

The struggle for greater openness in the media under Mubarak came at a high cost. Outspoken journalists and bloggers were arrested, prosecuted and harassed for reporting on controversial issues. Police and plainclothes thugs beat and detained reporters, confiscating and destroying video footage and notes. Prison sentences were imposed on members of the independent media, including newspaper editors and reporters. Elements of the state security apparatus may have even posed as journalists to monitor civil society and opposition activists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

After Mubarak’s ouster, the struggle for press freedom is far from over.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which have been ruling Egypt since Mubarak stepped down, have actively clamped down on press freedom since taking charge of the country. For decades, the army was a taboo subject in Egyptian media. Laws dating back to the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser prevent local journalists from reporting anything about the military without permission. This ban became difficult to enforce during the revolution, with soldiers in the streets and daily debates about the army’s role and its handling of the country, but the Supreme Council has sought to reinforce the restrictions. In late March the Morale Affairs Directorate of the Egyptian Military sent a letter to editors of Egyptian publications demanding they obtain approval for all mentions of the armed forces before publication, including “any topics, news, statements, complaints, advertisements, pictures pertaining to the Armed Forces or to commanders of the Armed Forces.” The Committee to Protect Journalists described it as “the single worst setback for press freedom in Egypt since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.”

Over the past four months, several journalists have been brought before the military prosecutor for interrogation after reporting on the army. In the most recent case, on June 19, Rasha Azab, a journalist with the newspaper Al Fajr, was summoned to the military prosecutor along with the newspaper’s editor in chief, Adel Hammouda. Azab was accused of “publishing false information with the potential to cause public disorder” after she penned an article detailing a meeting between the Supreme Council and activists campaigning against the widespread use of military trials against civilians. After a few hours of interrogation, she was released without bail but still faces a possible prison sentence or fine. This came on the heels of the case of Hossam El-Hamalawy, a prominent Egyptian blogger and activist, was summoned to the military prosecutor on May 30, along with TV presenter Reem Maged, after the head of military police, General Hamdi Badeen, filed a complaint about El-Hamalawy’s comments on the private OnTV channel, in which he criticized abusive military police practices and held Badeen responsible for the torture of activists.

In the most serious case, a military court in April sentenced blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad to three years in prison for “insulting the military” after he wrote an article criticizing the army for not being transparent in its decision-making.

State-run media is also continuing to censor dissident voices. Last week, potential presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei said he was barred from a popular show hosted by Islamic preacher Amr Khaled and broadcast on Egyptian state TV. The Nobel Peace laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency was effectively banned from appearing on local television channels while Mubarak was in power; upon his return to Egypt in February 2010 after many years abroad, ElBaradei emerged as a leading reform advocate.

“Policy of censure and vilification continues,” ElBaradei wrote from his Twitter account after his appearance on state TV was cancelled. In response, ElBaradei’s supporters set up a Facebook page calling for a protest at the Egyptian Radio and TV Union headquarters, known locally as ‘Maspero.’

The pressure appears to have worked. Later that day, ElBaradei announced state TV had rescinded its decision and would allow him on. “I’m grateful to the youth who sent a strong message to Egyptian Television, which is financed by the people, that a revolution has taken place and freedom of expression is guaranteed for everyone,” he said.

ElBaradei isn’t the first presidential candidate to clash with state-run TV. Bothaina Kamel, a newscaster turned activist, is described as the first woman to run for president in Egypt’s history (some dispute this, pointing to the feminist and writer Nawaal El Saadawi putting her name forward for candidacy in 2005). In May, Kamel appeared on the state-run Nile Culture TV to speak about clashes in Imbaba, in which two churches were set ablaze, 15 people were killed, and over 240 injured. Midway through the live interview, management cut her off the air.

Kamel has also been kept from hosting her own TV program on the Saudi-owned Orbit network. According to the New York Times: “When she chose to do a program, following the revolution, on Hosni Mubarak’s hidden billions, station executives, expecting Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in transferring the fortune would come up, informed her a half hour before airtime that the show was not going to be broadcast. Her program has been in reruns ever since.”

Despite the crackdown, there is a burgeoning movement for press freedom in Egypt. Many of the revolutionary youth who helped lead the 18-day uprising are looking to create new, independent outlets in the post-Mubarak media landscape. The publication El Gornal recently printed its second issue, intentionally breaking Egyptian law prohibiting publishing newspapers without official permission. An independent media center called “Mosireen” (Arabic for “We insist”) has opened its offices in downtown Cairo, advocating for citizen journalism—so ubiquitous during the uprising, with protesters using cell phone cameras to document the revolution—and providing services like media training, camera rentals, filming workshops, and editing booths. Historian Khaled Fahmy is leading efforts to create a digital, accessible archive of the revolution in collaboration with Egypt’s National Archives. A new Egyptian Journalists’ Independent Syndicate has been established with the aim of defending the rights of journalists. Media advocates are also looking to reform the laws and regulations governing the traditional spaces for television and radio, to redraw the media landscape in Egypt.

“Truly independent media is going to be the only guarantee that we can really build a democratic society,” says Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “When it comes to women’s rights and gender equality, when it come to the rights of religious minorities and the exercise of freedom of religion and when it come to social liberties and personal freedoms. We have to ensure that the media is a part of the struggle to democratize our society in parallel to our efforts the democratize the government.” In this critical transitional phase in Egypt’s history, the battle for freedom of the media is just beginning.

Interview with “Leila” on Torture in Iran

Web Exclusive: Extended interview with “Leila” on torture in Iran

PBS NEWSHOUR and the Center for Investigative Reporting mark the two-year anniversary of Iran’s “Green Movement” with an exclusive report about the government crackdown that followed. The report features the courageous work of an Iranian journalist and the first, heart-wrenching accounts of women demonstrators who say once arrested, they were raped, beaten and tortured by the Iranian government. Watch the full report on PBS NewsHour.

CIR editors had the full interview with “Leila” translated. What follows is an excerpt. For reasons of safety CIR has decided to not reveal the identities of the interviewer and person interviewed.

I was an ordinary person and a student who was detained for no reason.

That day I wasn’t part of any protest. I was returning home from the university. They harassed me, abused me, tortured me.

They constantly deny any act of torture on TV, but that’s exactly what they did to me. I want to tell the whole world, it wasn’t just me, but many people.

They arrested me and put me in a van. Along the way they hit us with batons, harassed us, and cursed us. They were policemen wearing uniforms with large builds, wearing hoods disguising their faces, you could only see their eyes and mouths. They had ripped off their name tags from their uniforms. Their uniforms, batons, shields and equipment were all similar. It was inside a van like those of morality police, they hit us and insulted us.

Among them was a young boy, his mustache hadn’t even grown yet, he wasn’t a man. He touched us all over with lust, on my breasts, other women’s breasts, wherever he wanted. No one dared to challenge him. A woman who protested, he turned and slapped her on the face. We all fell silent.

There was a guy filming us constantly with a handycam from all directions. They transferred us to a place that was like a warehouse. I didn’t see much of it, just that it had tall walls and a high ceiling like a warehouse. They wouldn’t exchange a word with each other, nothing whatsoever. They are such fearful people that [they wouldn’t speak] in front of someone like me, who is a nobody. I have the strength only now. Why didn’t I speak out before? I didn’t have the ability to speak out.

I am an ordinary person who decided to speak out more than a year after what happened to me. Go try find someone like me who would be willing to give an interview. They don’t exist, they don’t have the strength because they fear another round of torture and trouble. No one would come forward and say these things.

If our captors weren’t scared they wouldn’t have heaped this misfortune on us. I am not a very religious person but I do believe in something. They shattered my soul such that I say “Damn God!” Because what had I done? What had I done to deserve this? All I had done was to give one vote and that was to Mousavi. A vote that was never counted, never!

The dragged us on the floor, not even asking us to stand and walk. They dragged us like potato sacks into hallways made of curtains.

They gave us typed up pages, with the standard bureaucratic font. And what was written on those pages? It said that I had committed acts I had absolutely never done. I was to copy from those pages that I am a rioter, I have endangered national security, I did this and that, and I am a terrorist! I didn’t even have nail clippers in my purse, for them to say I had anything remotely sharp or dangerous. I only had my books and pens coming from the university.

They separated us into groups of five here, five there. It was the same boy who was groping us in the van, he separated us. For example, he said I was one of the pretty ones and should go to one side.

They shaved all our heads. I used to have log hair. He grabbed my hair in his hand like this. A man! It was a man shaving my hair, a man giving me a body search, a man touching me all over. There were no women there.

He would purposely hurt me while shaving me, to give me marks on my head.

While he was shaving me, he was touching me all over. I wasn’t sitting on a chair. He held me like this and grabbed my head while his legs were feeling me.

Five of us were taken to a cell. A tiny cell. Some earlier detainees were also there. I was really tired, bruised, my face all cut up, totally devastated. They held us there until they supposedly clarified our status.

We were in that tiny room for 18 hours. I desperately needed to go to the bathroom. The pressure was really hurting me. I felt my bladder would burst. I was nauseous, thirsty. I had read in human rights books that detainees have certain rights. But I didn’t have the most basic rights like going to the bathroom or drinking water. I didn’t the right to a lawyer, or to call my parents to say where I was and not to worry.

I didn’t have any appetite for food but I wished I could call my father. That was much more important to me. To say “Father dear, I am here and need someone to come help me.”

It wasn’t like they would tell us confess to this or that and then go free. They wanted to keep us in such limbo, to reach a point where you say enough. You would say I would do anything to get out of this.

With our hands tied, our eyes covered and hoods over our heads, they transferred us to a detention center. I couldn’t tell where it was. Not just me, no one had any idea where we were.

What haunted me the most was the groping, more than the insults. Their groping was torture.

As they groped us they would invoke Saint Zahra. Could you imagine that? Could Saint Zahra believe such things?

In the name of Saint Fatima, Saint Zahra they touched us and they even said “In the name of God” as they did it. They would say “Oh God accept us!” As if it was our wedding and he was performing his rituals preparing for the marital bed.

I detest the phrase vigilante forces that the government uses. How could they be vigilante if they have serious backing and protection? No! they were no vigilantes. All the papers and forms had seals of the Judiciary and Intelligence Ministry. You think I am a little kid to believe these people could be vigilantes? I am no kid! I have seen it all … killing people and claiming it was vigilantes!

They took us to a detention center. This was more like a proper detention center, not a warehouse. This time they took me into a solitary cell. I figured out that before and after interrogations they throw you in solitary confinement, so when you are done you don’t share your experience with others.

After a short time, about 20 minutes, they took me to the interrogation room. My hands were tied behind my back, I was blindfolded and gagged. The room was dark and the door opened. I heard steps. Someone sat in front of me.

“So you are a rioter! So you are undermining the State! Who you think you are? Who are you with?” I was gagged. He said “Why are you not talking?” I teared up.

I said “I am not with anyone.” He said “Shut up, speak when I tell you.” I was trembling all over. I felt my body tense up. I was so defenseless. He went on and on saying “Who are you with? You want to overthrow the State?” I said “How can I? I am not capable.” He said “Oh, yeah? You putting on a show? You think I am going to listen to you like others?” I kept silent. Next question: “What do you do?” I said “I am a student.” He said “No you are not. From now on don’t say you are a student.”

Suddenly I felt he was sitting on my legs. I couldn’t breathe from his weight. I was scared silent. I could feel his breathing on my face.

The first thing he did was lick my face. I felt my life drained. I felt my whole being escaping out of my mouth. He started to pull my clothes off. My hands bound, my eyes covered, I started crying. He shouted “Shut up whore!” Then he opened my bra and took my clothes off. He was stroking and hitting me at the same time. Saying “I will do something to you that you’ll never forget. I’ll make it so you never leave your house again. Anytime hear my name you’ll tremble, I’ll drive you insane”… and he did. He raped me.

Me, who never had a boyfriend. He raped me. Not with a baton … it was his filthy thing … his ugly male instrument. He raped me. Afterwards he urinated on me. The smell nauseated me. After a while he walked away and I was left with my sorrows. What happened? I was told from childhood to protect [my virginity] and now it was gone. What happened? I was in shock. After a while someone else came and meanwhile I had wet myself.

When he came he smacked me in my face and said, “You filthy scum you have stunk up the place!” Then he called some guy to come over and mop the floor. Then he went out and dragged something into the room, and sat in front of me. I could hear crinkling. He started unwrapping something. I didn’t know what, but when he flicked his lighter I realized he wanted to smoke. Until then he hadn’t said anything. I sat there with my hands tied. I sensed, I mean I heard, he put the cigarette to his mouth, and lit it. He said, “You are not talking? Are you mute? I’ll make you talk, who do you think you are?”

He untied my hands and started caressing me as if he wanted to make love. I had no feelings, I was numb from the beatings. Then something burned me. I screamed. He extinguished his cigarette on my left hand. I screamed. It hurt. It hurt a lot. I felt it penetrate to my bone. A hole in my hand. It burned, as if my hand was seared against a hot kettle… He still wasn’t done. He extinguished another cigarette on my knee. I was still consumed in the pain, when he put out another on my breast. I sensed it. I didn’t see it.

I keep using the verb “see” but I didn’t see anything, I was feeling everything. He put one cigarette after another on my body. I was burning. I felt my life drain from my veins. Why me? How much can I endure? How much should I suffer? I got quiet. I was crying. Someone else came into the room. I could hear the steps. He said something that I could not process. I was just raped an hour ago, and he said, “I’ve heard you are not a virgin. Did you do it with your boyfriend? How many guys have you been with?” In my heart I screamed, “You just raped me, you took my innocence, and now you are asking me how many guys I have been with? Before, I was a girl! You did this to me!”

I couldn’t comprehend that they were saying this. Me, who was a girl, living in this rotten society. I was someone who would tell off a guy who got too comfortable in the taxi cab next to me! Now he was telling me, “You had fun with your boyfriend? When they brought you here your hymen was broken Which whorehouse do you come from? Are you a prostitute?” I couldn’t talk. I wanted to say, “It was your friends who raped me, it was you! You all! Before this I was a girl!”

I didn’t know how long I was there. I fell asleep. A kick to the stomach suddenly woke me up. I felt like my stomach filled with blood. I tasted blood in my mouth. They cursed and pulled me out of the cell. I could not breathe. I didn’t know how long had passed. I felt drowsy, I couldn’t walk, I fell unconscious and when I woke up I thought I was in a clinic, but I wasn’t. The walls were dirty. They wanted to give me an IV, but I didn’t let them. I was scared it was infected with AIDs. They just dressed my cigarette burns.

I could smell blood, I was still drowsy. I didn’t feel well. They took my back to the cell. I don’t know how much time passed. One week, two weeks. Every other day it was the same routine. They would take me into the room, they would beat me, rape me, they would pour their sperm and excrement on me, and they would supposedly wash me with a bucket of water.

They didn’t extinguish cigarettes on me anymore, maybe they thought it would leave marks. They mostly beat me. I got an infection because of the repeated rapes. My uterus got infected, it smelled, I had little ugly bumps, I thought it was syphilis. I got treated, but I was never sent to the hospital. When I got back, my parents just took care of me at home.

I suffered many things during those days, and then later I was still tortured by the remaining pain. My uterus was polluted and sick. My spirit was crushed. Me, who was an active person, I was scared of crowds. I don’t know how many times they raped me. I didn’t have a watch to calculate. May be it was ten minutes, but for someone under such stress ten minutes is like a lifetime. I just know the number of rapes was very high, and it wasn’t always the same person.

They had handed my belongings to my father. They called him from my mobile and told him that we have arrested her. They told him she was one of the demonstrators. They showed him the file that I had handwritten and my father pursued my case. They kept us in limbo for so long that we no longer asked them when they would release me. This whole time I told myself to be strong. Be calm. In one instance, it will all be over. Death was my wish. I wanted to die. I wanted it all be over. I wanted to die in my sleep. I wanted peace. I prayed that I no longer existedI wanted to die.

In my dreams my only wish was death. In my dreams I was running in a field in a white dress. That field was so beautiful. It reminded me of a trip with my family, it was a beautiful memory. Those days I never thought one day I would be able to sit here and say what happened. To say what happened to me, to others. We are not Nasrin Sotoudeh, so that someone would come to our rescue. We are not Nasrin Sotoudeh, so that our voice would be heard. No one knows my name, no one knows where I am, no one, no one came to look for me.

When Neda died, all of Iran, the whole world, heard about it. But no one knew when they were raping me, when they were torturing me, when they were burning me with cigarettes.

I told myself one day I would speak so the whole world could hear. I would speak, I had promised myself. I signed in blood, a promise stronger than the bond of marriage. Unbreakable. I told myself that I would do it and I did it.

There are many of us, people that, because of their reputation and because of their life, they don’t speak up. People who are out there, people like me. Believe me, they are out there. They need you. All of you. Don’t let people like me suffer. It already happened to me, I’m only 22, but I feel old and I feel like dying. Please stop them. Please stop them. How did you help others? Please do it for us too. Us, who fear our reputation. If they see this video, what they will do to me? But I’m here. I’m speaking because I have to. Those who hear this, those who are like me, you have to speak. They have to understand. The whole world has to understand that there are those of us who are invisible.

Egyptian Activist’s Message to Iranians: Learn From Egyptians, As We Learned From You

by:  Wael Ghonim

Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian activist hailed by observers worldwide as a hero and one of the leaders of the Egyptian uprising, talked to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and thanked the people of Iran for organizing a demonstration on 14 February in solidarity with the people of Egypt and Tunisia, and thanked the Iranian civil rights movement.

Ghonim played a major role in organizing the protests that have shaken Egypt for the past two weeks. His Facebook page is widely credited with inviting Egyptians to their first public protest on 25 January.  Wael Ghonim has appeared with a green wristband during his public speeches and interviews. As the peaceful protests after the disputed 2009 presidential election in Iran came to be known as the “Green Movement,” Ghonim’s green wristband has become a source of interest for Iranians.

When asked by the Campaign whether the motivation behind his green wristband is Iran’s Green Movement, he said: “That was just a coincidence, but I’m happy you guys made the connection!”

“I would tell Iranians to learn from the Egyptians, as we have learned from you guys, that at the end of the day with the power of people, we can do  whatever we want to do.  If we unite our goals, if we believe, then all our dreams can come true,” is the prominent Egyptian activist’s message to Iranians on the threshold of the 14 February demonstrations.

Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who took time off from his job to be in Cairo during the protests, was freed last Monday after being held by Egyptian authorities for 10 days. He is one of the best known speakers for the Egyptian people’s movement.

Dasht-e Leili

(originally published at Words without Borders)

After the doors were shut, the tomblike cargo container had become dark. With our hands and feet bound with the fabric of our own turbans, we had fallen on top of each other and the only thing we could see was the glitter of each others’ eyes. Outside, the sun was shining, which made the air inside the container hot and close.


They had given us nothing to eat or drink all day. Before, the soldiers in camouflage uniforms, some of whom were constantly riding around us on motorcycles, used to give us bread and water. The soldiers were either Americans or from different countries. We were in Yerganak; for two days we had experienced the burning sun of Yerganak. After we gave up Kunduz and had surrendered to them, they gathered us there,and sat us down on the hot yellow sand in our bare feet. The first day, they divided us into smaller groups, tied a rope around us, and left us there on the burning sand. The rope around us was so tight that every one of us was pressed against another and none of us could move. Those among us who had a qadifa put them over our heads and we found relief under the shade. The sun was burning; our hot bodies stuck to each other and the heat from our bodies became one and the same. We could only sit still, staring at the others being tied up. After this, a few Kamaz trucks arrived, some of them open and others with cargo compartments, and some of us were taken away. We were getting boiled under the sun and no one could say anything. And even if we could have talked, we would not have understood each other anyhow. All of us, including me, had come from different and faraway places to engage in jihad and to reach paradise. I had seen every one of these black ghouls back in Kunduz, but only from a distance. They were in a separate group and not with us. At night, in the beams from the headlights of some cars circling around us, we shivered with cold but none of us could move. If we made even the slightest movement, a shot was fired and all of us were paralyzed, though the shivering went on.

The second day we were next in line. A container was pulled up toward us. Some soldiers babbling in Suzbek-Uzbek came up to us. They released the rope around us. I said in Persian that I did not belong with the others but they went on in Uzbek and started kicking me, and beating me with rifle butts. The soldiers took off everyone’s qadifas, vests, shoes, and turbans, and left us there with only our shirts and trousers on. After they had removed all of our belongings, these men whose language I could not understand said something. Still I could not make out one word. Then they began to bind our hands and feet with our turbans. Our group was the first to be tied up. They did the same thing with the others, in groups of hundreds or more, they were thrown in containers or loaded on Kamaz trucks, and then taken away. I was the third one whose turban they removed. They tore it in two. With the one part my hands were tied up in front of me, and with the other, they tied my feet, then threw me down on the hot yellow sand. Once again I said that I was not with the others, that I was an Afghan like them. I said it in Persian so that they might understand; they did not. I tried again, this time in Pashto, but they just went on with their Uzbek, as they were tying up the others’ hands and feet. Still in the same position as after I had fallen on the hot yellow sand, I watched as the others were stripped of their turbans one by one, bound hand and foot, and thrown down on the ground next to me. One big dark man began resisting and did not let them tie his hands. I got the impression that he was reciting the Qur’an. The soldiers threw themselves on top of him; kicking and beating him with the butts of their rifles, they fettered his hands behind his back with his own turban, which had fallen from his head. Still, he resisted. When they had tied up his feet, they pushed him down on the ground next to me. His head and face were smeared with blood. He was talking in the same manner as before; perhaps he was reciting the Qur’an after all. Again, the soldiers spoke with each other in that strange Suzbek-Uzbek, tied the hands of the rest behind their backs, and . . . as the red doors of the container were opened, we looked at each other and then fixed our eyes upon the soldiers. They hurled us into the container one by one. After I had been thrown on the container floor, I curled myself up, slithered to the side, and leaned against the metal wall. The wall was hot, but not so much that it burned my back. Everyone was twisting and bending their bound hands and feet, and pushed to make some space for themselves. But there were so many of us that we all lay piled up on top of each other. My stretched-out legs had ended up beneath two bodies and were impossible to move. One of the men on top of me was the one who had been beaten. I tried to pull up my legs. I could not. I shook them a little. The two men were staring at me but did not say a thing. Then they started moving as if they were trying to get up. I managed to get my legs out from beneath their bodies, pulled my knees against my chest, and wrapped my hands around my legs.


After the doors had been shut, the tomblike container was filled with darkness, and the only thing we could hear was our own heavy breathing. I placed my bound hands on the turban knot, with which my feet had been fettered, and tried to undo it. For a moment it felt as if it would open and hope sparked inside me. I fixed my eyes on the man who had been knocked about and now had fallen down next to me. I could hear him breathing and felt how his chest, pressing against my legs, was rising and falling. He seemed to be staring at something. When I followed his eyes, my sight fell upon a thin streak of light shining through a crack in the wall, flickering in the stale air of the container. In the darkness, I followed the thin streak of light—from his eyes—and spotted a crack just above my head; not more than an inch, possibly from a bullet. I tried to stretch upward but I could not. My back was pressed against the wall, which was getting warmer and warmer; I was sweating and having trouble breathing. Everyone was silent. The space inside the container was filled with the changing stench of bodies that had not seen even the color of water for many days. The air was getting thicker and I could breathe only with difficulty. After a while, the sounds we were making increased and I could feel the blows of bodies hitting the container’s wall. Everyone tried to strike with any part of the body that could be moved, and gradually the banging sound of fettered hands, tied-up feet and heads hitting the walls, resounded in the container. Everyone was screaming and the sound of heads banging against the container grew stronger. I breathe heavily. I scream. I am banging my head against the wall. Bang . . . bang, everyone is screaming, pounding at the walls with their fists, their feet, and probably also with their heads.

They, inside the container, beneath the sun. We, outside, in the wall’s narrow shadow. We watched the container, listening to the thumping from inside, possibly from their heads banging the walls. When we seized Mazar everyone had fled. In the city, nobody was to be seen. No one came out from their homes, as they had done in the other cities we had seized. The heat was merciless. It was early summer and I experienced the heat here in Mazar much worse than on the plains of Helmand and Nimruz. Those people we had found out on the streets, or had dragged out from their homes, we threw in the container. They were yelling that they were being boiled and that the door should be opened. We had placed ourselves in the shadow from the wall and our bodies were dripping with sweat. Everyone we had stumbled upon had been thrown into the container. The burning sun of Mazar stood right above us and the shadow falling from the wall was growing shorter, and every gust of wind that met our dripping bodies felt like a blessing. We were still sitting there, listening to the noise they were making. My friends did not know Persian that well so they just sat there staring at the container chatting with each other. Everyone was occupied with his own doings. The man next to me had opened his beloved Qur’an to read from. Occasionally he took his eyes from the book, and while his fingers were stroking and scratching his long beard, he stared at the container for some time, before he returned to his reading. I was the only one who understood what they said. “We are choking. Oh, you nonbelievers, open the doors. We are being boiled, we are being grilled.” That man next to me who was reading from the Qur’an raised his head. Scratching his beard in the same manner as before he said, “They are still alive.” Once again, he sank into the pages of his dear Qur’an. And the others were still screaming.


We are screaming. We have not been boiled yet. We are screaming, begging them to open the doors. Everyone is loud, but I do not understand what they are saying, only God knows in what kind of language they speak, I do not know. I think some of them are reciting the Qur’an, I do not know. Everyone is knocking loudly in the container. Perhaps, it is their heads pounding against the walls of the container that brings about this banging sound. As my breathing deteriorates, I pound my head into the wall and a banging sound fills my head. I can taste blood. It is my own blood. At that point I stop banging my head against the wall; I taste the warm and salty blood and swallow it. I lick my lips and swallow the blood that streams down from my head. As my throat becomes moist, I feel that I can scream even more. I scream and I scream and I scream and I scream . . . and then, I calm down and listen to the voices gradually die out. I let my eyes wander around in the darkness. Someone is still reciting the Qur’an. This is something I can understand but I cannot remember from which Sura he reads. The man who had fallen over my legs is quiet. I can see him staring in the darkness. His eyes seem to be fixed on something. I remember the thin stream of light and the crack in the wall. I follow his eyes and my sight falls upon the thin stream of light that flickers in the container’s stale air. At the sight of the light a longing stirs in my heart. I look up and forget the hot walls of the container that are burning my back. I forget how thirsty I am, how many hours I have been imprisoned inside this container, and how difficult it is for me to breathe. It feels almost as if I could pull myself up to that crack and inhale the air from the outside. Though, if I did move and stand up, I would not be able to sit down again. It would be enough if I could move even a little, but I have still not found a position from which I could get up. So many hours since they threw us in the container . . . how long has it been? I do not know really, I do not remember. It is still morning. Or can it be afternoon, now that the air is so hot. I can still hear the sound of the three-wheeled motorcycles, those who used to go around and guard us, always carrying two soldiers in camouflage uniforms. Other than those Uzbek-babbling soldiers to whom we had surrendered, no soldiers seem to come. I shake my bound hands that hug my fettered legs pulled up against my chest. All the feeling in my fingers is now gone. I touch the turban knot with which my feet have been tied up, but I have trouble moving my numbed fingers. I twitch my fingers so that the blood will begin to flow again. Once more, I look up toward the crack above me, which the man next to me is still probably gazing at. Now I can also hear the sound of his deep breathing. I want to stand up. I pull myself upward; perhaps I can reach the crack with my mouth and make my breathing easier. Maybe the air outside . . . I cannot, I remain in the same position, inhaling the stale and stinking air only with difficulty. It is impossible to breathe deeply; the odor from our sweating bodies has become rank and suffocating. Everyone breathes loudly and the sound of their breathing disperses through the container’s oxygen-deficient space. Everyone’s hands are tied up, all of our feet fettered. No one can move even the slightest distance. There is no spirit left in any of us to summon the strength it takes to move oneself. If only my hands had been free. When I touch the knot with my fingers, it feels as if I can undo it. I am working the knot little by little. Those bastards, they have used a blind knot! The knot around my feet is also tight and I cannot feel a thing in them. The soles of my feet are stuck to the container floor and are burning from the heat. I cannot lean against the wall any longer. I want to detach my back from it but I cannot, there is no room to move. I am thirsty, the sweat is pouring down from my head and face, and my breath is burning. I can feel someone licking my arm where my sleeve is torn; he is licking. When I turn toward him, I see that it is the man next to me that is licking the sweat on my arm; the salty sweat of my body, a body that has not seen even the color of water for many days. It feels as if this is making me thirstier. The man next to me stops licking my arm and looks at me. I see the sparkle in his eyes and then I feel his tongue passing over my arm as it collects my sweat. I twist my tongue around in my mouth and the thirst seems more intense now as I feel that my dry tongue is stuck. When I turn my eyes away from him I see the dancing light in the dark space of the container. Again, I begin to work the knot around my feet. The knot is getting looser and I can move my feet; the knot slackens even more. Then it opens. I quickly undo it and unwind the turban around my feet. I can even stand up now. I slide the unwound turban under my buttocks and can feel its softness. Then I turn around and put my knees on the turban; I stand up and put my mouth against the crack in the container wall. I open my mouth and press my lips around the opening; my lips are burning, burned by the heat of the container wall. I pull back, but my breathing is still heavy so I put my lips back around the crack and let them burn. I take the warm air from the outside into my lungs and my inside is cooled down a little. The container starts to move and the heavy swaying throws my head back. When I try to press my lips around the opening again, the container keels once more and my face is slammed into the container’s metal wall. My nose and teeth take the hit and it feels as if something has broken. I swallow the blood in my mouth and pass my tongue over my teeth, and spit out the broken pieces. Once again I gulp the warm and salty blood. My throat feels refreshed.

I look around, in the darkness of the close air, everyone is panting; as if they all are licking the sweat off each other’s bodies. I feel someone drag his body over my legs; with my legs pressed against the container floor, I feel an acute pain in my knees. I turn my head to look. It is him, that enormous man who apparently has tipped sideways and fallen on my legs. I ask him to get off me. In the darkness of his face I can see his eyes glittering. He does not move. In spite of my pleas to get off me, he only keeps staring at me. He says something I can’t understand; he is not speaking Pashto. God knows where this man comes from. I feel that the blood has stopped flowing through my legs and sit on the chest of the man who cannot get off my legs can feel his fleshy ribs and wet clothes under my buttocks. He moves a little, to the degree that it is possible, and I remain seated on his sturdy chest. The pressure from his weight has made my knees and thighs press against the container wall and I can sense the heat ascending from my sweat-dripping pants. I turn my face and look behind me. The spot from where the man whose chest I am sitting on had fallen a few moments ago has been taken by another man, and he cannot move back. All of us are moving back and forth as the container sways, and the fleshy chest of the man under my buttocks is wobbling. Everyone is moaning and I can hear their loud breathing. I open my scorched lips and draw the fetid air into my lungs, but I still have difficulty breathing. I stand up on my knees and press my chest and thighs against the hot container wall; the heat in my clothes sizzles as it vaporizes, and I feel the hot fumes rising. I have lost all feeling in my legs under the man whose chest I am sitting on. He does not move. I try to shake my numbed legs but I cannot. In every swaying motion of the container, his body presses my legs and I feel like screaming. I raise my bound hands and hit him. He twists his head a little and starts to scream but I do not understand what he says. My hands begin to hurt so I stop. Gasping for air, I bring my mouth closer to the crack and try to close my lips around the opening. The man, whose chest I am sitting on and whose face most likely is covered with blood as a result of my punches, manages to move himself a little; my nose, mouth, and teeth hit the container wall once again and a sudden pain rushes through my whole body. I pant for breath, swallow the blood in my mouth, and put my scorched lips around the crack. As I inhale the air from the outside, my lungs are filled with dust, and I begin to cough. The blood in my legs must be clotted by now, since I cannot feel a thing in them. My hair and beard are soaking with sweat that flows down over the rest of my body. Once more I feel the tongue of him whose hands are tied behind his back, against my sweat-dripping pants. I take another breath from the crack but dust and sand rasp my throat, so I lift my burned lips from the crack and begin to cough—and cough. I feel the grains of sand in my mouth. That is OK since it does not really matter, I will swallow it anyhow. It burns and lacerates my lungs.


It is quite nice now that autumn has arrived; it was summer in Mazar and even though we used to sit in the shade, we were heat stricken. They were not beating at the container any longer. We had thrown them into the container hours ago, and now they were silent. I had walked up to the container and touched it, and my fingertips had been burnt I looked at the others who had sat down in the shadow of the wall and were fanning themselves with the loose end of their turbans. The man who had been reading the Qur’an was still scratching his beard and reading from his Qur’an. At one time he had raised his head and asked if they were still alive.


We are still alive. It is the autumn that has kept us alive. I have trouble breathing. The moaning voices are gradually decreasing. I sit down on the chest of the man who had fallen over my legs; under my buttocks I can feel that his chest has stopped moving. Perhaps he cannot breathe any longer. I lay my hands on the shoulders of the man next to me, he who earlier was licking my sweat, and collect all my strength and try to get up. His body gives way and together we fall down. I take hold of the arms of the man who previously had been licking my sweat and now is breathing heavily, and drag myself forward; perhaps I can get my legs out from beneath the dead body on whose chest I have been sitting. I cannot do it, I cannot breathe. Since he stopped breathing, it feels as if he has become heavier. My thighs and knees are stuck against the container wall and are impossible to move. Breathing is not getting any easier. With a lot of effort I manage to stand up, put my scorched lips around the crack, and take in the warm and dusty air from the outside into my lungs and begin to cough—and cough. I listen to the sound of my coughing, twirling through the air inside the container. As the coughing ends I put my lips around the opening again. I must survive. I cannot suffocate like the others. I need to stay alive. I must live. There is no air left inside the container, I must breathe from that crack, but my lips, my lips are parched. Oh my God, what can I do? My lips are being grilled. My mouth is dry. If only it had a drop of saliva, if only my mouth was filled with blood again, if only . . . hands and chest are pressing against the hot container wall, and I feel the heat of sweat as my clothes touch the hot container wall, rising and touching my sweat-dripping face. The sweat is pouring down from my head and face, enters my eyes and burns. My God! I need to scream, I must pound at the hot wall. I must beg those Suzbek-Uzbek-speaking soldiers to open the doors. Everyone has suffocated and soon I, too, will be gone. My God, I have lost my voice. Is there not anyone there who can tell them to open the door? I pound at the metal wall with my bound hands and bump my head against the wall. Perhaps they can hear me. It is as if my head was made of stone; as I pound it against the wall a banging sound resonates.


I could hear how they pounded their fists and feet, and possibly also their heads, against the container wall. I was seated in the narrow shade of the wall. We had taken our places in that shadow and were listening, under the burning sun of Mazar, to them hitting the metal walls with their fists, feet, and perhaps also with their heads. Bang bang bang . . . I stood in the shadow of the wall, sweating, and whenever a gentle breeze touched my body, I shivered and enjoyed it. I felt pretty good.


I can feel that the wall has cooled down and through the crack cooler air finds its way down into my lungs. After some time, the stinking air in the container becomes cooler and I do not sweat any longer. I can feel the dried sweat and the coarseness in my clothes against my skin. Longing stirs in my heart and the coolness of the air infuses new life into me. It feels as if I will survive. The container is moving more smoothly now and my legs, still wedged under the dead man’s body, are not troubled by the gentle and monotonous swaying of the container. My body has cooled down and the thirst is not that intense anymore. I lick my scorched lips and feel the roughness of the dried blood around my mouth. The light entering the container from the crack in the wall does not shine any longer. I put my mouth against the opening and feel my burned lips being met by the cool air that blows in through the crack; cravingly I suck in the air into my lungs. Time after time, I inhale the fresh air into my lungs and a sensation of survival stirs up inside me. Perhaps everyone but me is dead. Not a sound can be heard from them, and from the outside, I can only hear the sound of wheels running over asphalt at high speed. I open my mouth and ask if someone is still alive or not. I hear a shrill voice struggling up from my throat but it quickly dissolves into the putrid and suffocating space inside the container. A couple of times I ask, “Is anybody alive? Are you still alive? Is anybody alive here? Anybody . . .” From one of the corners inside the container I hear a weak voice fighting its way out of somebody’s dried-up throat. The voice is completely incomprehensible, as if it emanated from the bottom of a deep well, and it does not make any sense at all. Perhaps he talks in another language. The voice is more like a moaning. Then, the container fills with silence once again. I press my head against the cold container wall and the coldness of the metal enters my skin. Every now and then a light shines into the container through the opening, but only to disappear just as fast. Gradually I feel I am getting colder. The fetid smell inside the container has lessened. My clothes, which are glued to my body, send cold rushing through me. I have become very tired and want to sleep. That is good; if I fall asleep I will forget everything. No, no, I cannot fall asleep. I cannot sleep. If I fall asleep I will suffocate too. I must press my lips around that crack as often as I can and force down the outside air into my lungs. I must survive. I must live. I must live. I must live. Must . . . must . . . must . . . must. I have trouble breathing, must put my lips around the crack and breathe. With every breath I take, dust and sand follow. I can feel the grains of sand under my tongue. The cold has embraced my very existence. How fast they cooled down, the container walls . . . the cold quickly disperses throughout my body. I feel drowsy. No, I can’t sleep. If I fall asleep the cold will kill me for sure . . . during the day we had all been suffering from the heat. The others had been boiled by the heat and had suffocated from lack of air. But I, I will die from cold. The coldness will kill me. That crack which up to now has kept me alive will kill me. When my face is met by the outside air I can sense its coldness against my skin. It feels as if I am in Dasht-e Leili. Dasht-e Leili, Dasht-e Leili . . . We had gotten out of Shibirghan and taken off toward the plains. We did not know where to go or where we were going to. A few days after we had taken Shibirghan, the fighting began. Shots were being fired at us from all around. None of us was familiar with the city and we did not know where to run. Mounted on a Datsun, we drove around aimlessly until we managed to find a way out. On that truck we fled out into the plains. At a high speed, the Datsun carried us away— without us knowing where we were going to. It had become night and we were still going. Then we found ourselves out on a plain. The night of the desert plain was getting cooler but none of us had a qadifa to cover himself with. When the fighting broke out and we were being shot at from all directions, we took flight, we had thrown ourselves up on the Datsun in confusion and fled just like that. In the desert night we shivered and huddled up against each other on the Datsun’s rear bed. The driver drove at the same speed as when he had managed to get us out of the city and drove on into the heart of the desert. The headlights on the Datsun were switched off so we could not see a thing. Then, the car went silent and stopped moving. As the driver got out of the Datsun and went to fetch the diesel can, we understood that we had run out of fuel. The driver picked up the diesel can and then threw it angrily on the ground—the empty can emitted a hollow sound before it settled down on the ground. We were forced to spend the night in the Datsun. But with fear and cold none of us could get any sleep. Our eyes wandered about in every direction. Then we took turns keeping watch and resting. Early in the morning, as soon as it dawned, we looked around us; we noticed the wheel tracks from our Datsun that had run all over the dry and arid desert plain and had cut one another at places. We had been going round in circles. It was getting warmer and we were still wavering in which direction we should go. “This is Dasht-e Leili . . . Dasht-e Leili . . .” one of us said. He told us that he had heard stories about this place, that many men had lost their way in this desert and had not been able to find their way out. The driver, the commander, and a couple of others, who had been sitting inside the Datsun, climbed down and walked away. We jumped down from the rear bed of the Datsun and followed them. Crossing the wheel tracks from our Datsun that ran in every direction and cut one another, we moved ahead under the burning sun. We took our rifles off our backs and wandered about in confusion, but we could not find a road. In the sun we were suffering from heatstroke. We got rid of our rifles and threw our cartridge belts away; the only thing we had to carry was ourselves. I am not sure when it was, or for how many hours we had wandered about, bewildered and dazed, in the Dasht-e Leili, when I looked behind me; out of the ten or twelve of us that had started out, only I had survived, and two others, who were approaching slowly from behind and were falling to the ground every other step they took. Further back, a third one had fallen down on the dry yellow sand. Right in front of me, not far away, I could see the road. I dragged myself in that direction and stood up at the roadside. The sun, still burning from above, had made me dizzy. Then I had fallen down on the hot yellow soil of Dasht-e Leili. When I regained consciousness, I could feel a gentle swaying and some light vibrations, and as I opened my eyes I found myself inside a Kamaz truck. Some people were staring at me. “He has regained consciousness, he is awake . . .” I could hear one of them say. Everyone fixed their eyes on me and I asked them for some water. They were Persian-speakers and that is a language I understand well. But these I could not understand. They were neither speaking Persian, nor Pashto. And the language of those soldiers that were speaking Suzbek-Uzbek, to which we had surrendered, I could not understand either. And they do not understand me. No matter how much I insist that I do not belong with these people and that I am an Afghan, they do not understand me.

Now, again, I see the thin streak of light that shines into the container, flickering around in the stale air. The air becomes heated at such a pace; first the container wall, against which I have pressed my lips, and then the air, reeking with the body fluids of the dead. Now, as I shape my scorched lips around the crack to inhale the air into my lungs, my lips are burned again; the heavy swaying of the container hurts my teeth, and in the same manner as yesterday, hot dust, sand and particles, follow with the air into my lungs and I begin to cough. A cough so strong I can almost taste both liver and heart, and were it not for my empty stomach, I would have thrown up for sure. My God, I too am perishing. My clothes and body will surely get soaked with sweat again and I will have difficulty breathing. No, there cannot be any fluid left inside me that may transpire to render the air inside the container more evil-smelling than this; the pungent smell of sweat from the dead, the stench of vomit, perhaps also the odor of someone’s feces, has filled the air inside the container. If only the man next to me had been alive to lick my sweat, then I should have known that at least one was still alive. I am still alive . . . If only he whose language I could not understand had been alive, he who had fallen over my legs, he whose chest I had felt ascending and descending as he breathed heavily. Perhaps I can set myself free, but I still cannot feel a thing in my legs; it is as if two joints of rancid meat had been wedged under the body of a corpse. And now my own death is imminent. I can still feel the movements of the container. I have fallen over this dead man and I cannot move an inch. There is no air left inside the container for me to breathe, and inside me there is no spirit left to summon the strength it takes to stand up, to get my scorched lips around the opening and suck the outside air into my lungs; the hot and sand-filled air. I only lie there, with my back against the dead bodies, and with my knees pressing against the container wall, no, the container wall pressing against my knees . . . the moment of death cannot be far away now. I feel that someone is rocking me gently. The thin stream of light that shines in through the crack, alternately flickers before my eyes and dissolves; I see it, and then I do not see it. After this, there is no one left to rock me. At a distance, I can hear voices, but I do not know if these are really voices or . . . I am probably wrong. Light does not have a voice. But it has. All of a sudden the light becomes more intense. The light is strengthened and fills my eyes. It strikes my eyes and then I feel how I am being dragged behind someone along the ground. A few of them are dragging me. Once again I hear the voices that appear to be getting nearer and nearer. The voices babble in that Suzbek-Uzbek and carry me away from the container. Something is causing a twinge of pain in my legs; the legs in which I earlier did not have any feeling, the legs that had been wedged like two joints of meat under the body of that man who had been beaten. But now I could feel a twinge of pain in both my legs. A weak sound comes out from my mouth. A voice, more resembling a moan which rises from the bottom of a deep well. It is only with difficulty I can discern my own voice emanating from the depths of a well. My face is turned toward the ground. The soil enters my eyes. I am placed in the hot sand, this I can understand by the burning against the skin. I feel the hot winds against my body, and the sweat that earlier poured down over my face, has dried up. My dry scaly hair blocks my sight; still I can discern something blurred appearing and disappearing before my eyes. Then I see some feet around me. The feet speak Uzbek. The feet raise me up. They lift me under my arms and drag me away behind them. I open and shut my eyes alternately, and everything around appears in an obscured blur. Again, I see the feet that are dragging me away. The soil and the hot yellow sand fill my eyes. They burn and are blinded by the desert, and it feels as if I still am in the Dasht-e Leili. Someone drags me, heat-stricken, along the hot soil and sand. I am thrown into a pit and notice a softness under my body. I imagine myself still inside the container, seated upon him; the man with those fleshy ribs, he who had fallen down over my legs. My eyes are no longer filled with dust and my cheek rests against someone’s shackled hands. Then I hear the sound of an approaching car, do not ask me of which type,. Again I can feel the weight of a body over my legs. I open my mouth to inhale the sandy air, but instead, my mouth is filled with soil, and when I open my eyes they cannot close again, and soil and soil and . . . soil . . . soil . . . soil . . . soil . . . soil . . .

Tehran—Sawr, 1382 (April-May, 2003)

Translation of “Dasht-e Leili,” from the collection Anjir-ha-ye Sorkh-e Mazar (The Red Figs of Mazar, 1383/2004–5). Copyright Mohammad Hossein Mohammadi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Anders Widmark. All rights reserved.

Read more:

‘No Let-Up’ In Secret Executions In Iran

On the second anniversary of the disputed June 2009 election and the ensuing repression, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran today released video testimony from a young female detainee, describing in detail her severe torture and repeated rape after her arbitrary arrest.

Her forceful testimony challenges the Iranian authorities’ official narrative, which denies widespread use of torture and rape by security forces against ordinary protestors.


‘No Let-Up’ In Secret Executions In Iran

originally published at Radio Free Europe
A U.S.-based rights group says Iran has carried out more secret executions at a prison where the practice was criticized in a recent UN report.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said the executions were carried out at Vakilabad prison in Mashhad in recent months.

Group spokesman Hadi Ghaemi told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda on May 25 that “We have been able to confirm through local sources that executions have been performed secretly in Vakilabad prison since March 2011.”

He said some 70 people were executed over that period without having been informed in advance of their imminent death.

Ghaemi said the death sentences are carried out after the sentences are forwarded by chief prosecutor Mohseni Ejei to the Mashad regional prosecutor. He blamed Ejei for the failure to inform prisoners or their families before the sentences are carried out.

Ghaemi questioned claims that most of the 1,000 people executed over the past 18 months were sentenced for drug-related crimes, noting that no statistics have been released. But he said his organization has compiled statistics for the number of prisoners executed at Vakilabad, a huge detention center housing some 10,000 prisoners.

He said executions also continue at the Karoon, Birjand, and Ahva prisons. He said the number of executions at Vakilabad may be higher because Mashhad borders on Afghanistan and is therefore on a major drug-trafficking route.

Ghaemi said the Iranian authorities have admitted to the UN that unannounced executions take place but that they understate the actual number.

He expressed concern that executions for drug-related crimes have not resulted in a decline in drug use in Iran, and that some of those executed may in fact be innocent.

In a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced concern about the human rights situation in Iran, including the executions of drug traffickers. The report said some 60 people had been executed in Mashhad in July.

Iranian Women Prisoners: ‘Death Was Like a Desire’

Listen to Audio

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, a rare look at dissent in Iran, including the abuse of female prisoners during and following the 2009 Green Revolution. That was when thousands took to the streets of Tehran and other cities to protest a disputed presidential election, before facing a violent crackdown by the government. Our story is told through interviews recorded in secret with Iranian women. The correspondent’s voice and the faces and voices of some of the women have been altered to protect their identities. This report is a co-production with the Center for Investigative Reporting. A caution: Some of the images and stories are disturbing.

CORRESPONDENT: It’s been two years since the bloody days that followed Iran’s disputed presidential election. I was there in the streets, along with hundreds of thousands of people. During the uprising, known as the Green Movement, I witnessed horrific acts of suffering, including the death of Neda Agha Soltan. It was captured on video and posted on the Internet for the world to see. But I felt compelled to share some of the untold stories from that chaotic time. A Rare Look at Abuse of Female Prisoners in Iran A Rare Look at Abuse of Female Prisoners in Iran

WOMAN (through translator): When Neda died, all of Iran and the rest of the world knew. But when they were raping and torturing me, and putting out cigarettes on my body, nobody knew.

CORRESPONDENT: On a cold day this past winter, I met a 22-year-old woman I call Layla in a cafe. She was like any other vibrant, talkative girl, but I could see a deep sadness in her eyes. A month after the disputed election, Layla and several other women were randomly rounded up in the street by police who accused them of being part of the Green Movement.

WOMAN (through translator): When they arrested us and threw us in a van and beat us with clubs, they kept hitting us, and they verbally abused us. They took us somewhere. I didn’t know where it was. The windows of the van were tinted.

CORRESPONDENT: She said she was taken to a secret prison.

WOMAN (through translator): When the guard was shaving my hair, he was purposely shaving in a way that would cut my skin very painfully. And he left a little patch of hair in front just to bother me. I wasn’t sitting in a chair as he was cutting my hair. He was holding me from behind and rubbing himself against me.

CORRESPONDENT: Next, she was blindfolded and gagged. Then, with her hands tied behind her back, she was dragged into an interrogation room. After being questioned for only a short time, Layla says her interrogator became physical with her.

WOMAN (through translator): I was scared to death. The first thing he did was lick my face with his tongue. Then, he started touching my bra and all over my body. I was crying, “Please, please don’t. I am innocent. I’m a virgin.” He said, “No, you are not a virgin anymore.” Then he raped me. After he raped me, he urinated on me, on my whole body.

CORRESPONDENT: Layla said her torture didn’t end there. WOMAN (through translator): Then I heard the sound of the whip in the air, and then felt it on my body. Then he untied my hands and he started caressing my arm like a lover. I felt something burning me just for a second. I screamed and he slapped me. He put out his cigarette on my left hand. He put out another cigarette on my knee. I was still lost in the first and second pain when I felt another cigarette on my chest, another cigarette on back of my feet, another, another, and another, a pack of 20 cigarettes put out on my body.

CORRESPONDENT: Layla showed me the scars from the cigarette burns, but was too afraid to let them be filmed. As the protests continued in the streets of Tehran, Layla continued to be brutalized in the secret prison for nearly two months.

WOMAN (through translator): I don’t know how many times a day I was raped. It wasn’t just one person. There were different people. The whole time I was there, I was telling myself, be strong, be calm. The end of this is death, and death will only take a moment. Death was like a desire for me. I wanted to die.

CORRESPONDENT: Layla was released on several hundred thousand dollars bail, a price so high, that her parents had to sell the family business. She was never formally charged with a crime, and the secret police continue to monitor her. Layla was one of several women who have talked with me over the past year, even though all of us can face retribution from the regime for speaking out. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, “Rape was routinely practiced as a matter of policy to intimidate young ordinary people from ever coming out to protest again.” Iranian TV released this footage of a detention center after the speaker of Iran’s Parliament admitted that almost 100 cases of rape were filed. But the government later dismissed the charges. In the mountains north of Tehran this past winter, I met up with a young woman I call Samira. She asked to meet me here because it’s one of the few places young people can go and not be spied on. Samira is a rap singer and uses her music to give voice to those who cannot speak out.

WOMAN (through translator): What I could do was write about it, what I had seen, and be the voice for the people who are dead or imprisoned.

CORRESPONDENT: I first met her in the early days of the protests of 2009. She was an activist in the Green Movement, and had just seen a young man gunned down in the street next to her. WOMAN (through translator): I went to the streets to demonstrate. We held back the Basiji militia for two hours just by throwing stones. A man standing next to me with a mask on his face, I had given him some stones just a few minutes before. He fell down and blood exploded out of the middle of his forehead. I was shocked. Then somebody shouted that it was a direct shot.

CORRESPONDENT: What Samira saw wasn’t unusual. Countless numbers of protesters were shot by the Basiji militia. Parvin Fahimi is the mother of one of those victims. She’s the only woman I interviewed who wanted to be identified.

PARVIN FAHIMI, mother (through translator): I can’t understand it, really, why my child, who went out for a civil protest — which was his right to ask, what happened to my vote? And he get a bullet as his answer.

CORRESPONDENT: Fahimi’s son Sohrab has become one of the famous martyrs of the Green Movement.

PARVIN FAHIMI (through translator): The regime actually wanted to kill our children. It makes me sad that they don’t realize these could be their own children.

CORRESPONDENT: She says that, even though the street protests have quieted down, the Green Movement is still very much alive.

WOMAN (through translator): This is an angry silence. And they shouldn’t think, if the people are quiet, it means everything is finished. No, the tornado is coming after calm and peace.

CORRESPONDENT: Layla, the woman who was tortured and raped, agrees.

WOMAN (through translator): I am totally Green. If I don’t wear Green clothing, it’s because I don’t want to go back there. But, in my heart, in my brain, I am Green, even in my blood. If I wasn’t Green, I wouldn’t have come in front of the camera to tell my story.

CORRESPONDENT: Samira, the rapper, says too many people have suffered too much to return to the way things were. She sings: “Captive and prisoners behind the dark walls, we know our destiny to freedom. We, the caged birds, sing the song of flight together, solid as a row of cypress, dedicated to the soil of Iran. Tomorrow’s green sunrise belongs to us.”

MARGARET WARNER: As we said, that report was a co-production with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The Poetry of Revolt

It is truly inspiring to see the bravery of Egyptians as they rise up to end the criminal rule of Hosni Mubarak. It is especially inspiring to remember that what is happening is the culmination of years of work by activists from a spectrum of pro-democracy movements, human rights groups, labor unions, and civil society organizations. In 2004, when Kefaya began their first public demonstrations, the protesters were usually outnumbered 30 to one by Central Security Forces. Now the number has reversed—and multiplied.

No less astonishing is the poetry of this moment. I don’t mean “poetry” as a metaphor, but the actual poetry that has played a prominent role in the outset of the events. The slogans the protesters are chanting are couplets—and they are as loud as they are sharp. The diwan of this revolt began to be written as soon as Ben Ali fled Tunis, in pithy lines like “Yâ Mubârak! Yâ Mubârak! Is-Sa‘ûdiyya fi-ntizârak!,” (“Mubarak, O Mabarak, Saudi Arabia awaits!”). In the streets themselves, there are scores of other verses, ranging from the caustic “Shurtat Masr, yâ shurtat Masr, intû ba’aytû kilâb al-’asr” (“Egypt’s Police, Egypt’s Police, You’ve become nothing but Palace dogs”), to the defiant “Idrab idrab yâ Habîb, mahma tadrab mish hansîb!” (Hit us, beat us, O Habib [al-Adly, now-former Minister of the Interior], hit all you want—we’re not going to leave!). This last couplet is particularly clever, since it plays on the old Egyptian colloquial saying, “Darb al-habib zayy akl al-zabib” (The beloved’s fist is as sweet as raisins). This poetry is not an ornament to the uprising—it is its soundtrack and also composes a significant part of the action itself.

A History of Revolutions, a History of Poets

There is nothing unusual about poetry playing a galvanizing role in a revolutionary moment. And in this context, we might remind ourselves that making revolution is not something new for Egyptians—having had no less than three “official” revolutions in the modern era: the 1881 Urabi Revolution which overthrew a corrupt and comprador royalty; the 1919 Revolution, which nearly brought down British military rule; and the 1952 Revolution which inaugurated 60 years of military dictatorships under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. The first revolution succeeded in establishing the second parliamentary government on the African continent before it was crushed by foreign military intervention. In the aftermath of defeat, the British established a rapacious colonial rule over Egypt for more than 70 years. The second revolution was a sustained, popular uprising led by a range of pro-democracy activists from a range of civil institutions. Though savagely repressed, it did force the British to grant some concessions. The third revolution officially celebrated in Egypt stands apart from the first two in that it was a coup d’etat that went out of its way to circumscribe popular participation. In any case, it was accepted in the moment since it finally ended the rule of the royal family first overthrown in 1881 and initiated a process of British withdrawal from Egypt.

Besides these three state-commemorated events, Egyptians have revolted against the corruption, greed and cruelty of their rulers many more times in the last 60 years. On January 26, 1952, Egyptians emerged onto the streets to protest an array of issues—including the corruption of the monarchy, the decadence, power and privilege of foreign business elites, and the open-ended British occupation. The revolt was quickly suppressed, though the damage to property was massive, and it set in motion an exodus of foreign elites—and the military coup months later. In 1968, Egyptian students launched huge and daring protests against the repressive policies of Nasser’s police state. In the early 1970s, Egyptian students engaged in sustained mass protests against the radical political reorientations of the new Sadat regime—and eventually forced the state to re-engage in military confrontation with Israel. On January 18-19, 1977, Egyptians rose up en masse to protest against IMF austerity measures imposed on the country by the corrupt, inept and ruthless regime of Anwar Sadat. The Egyptian President was already on his jet ride into exile before the Central Security Forces and Army finally gained the upper hand. In Egypt it is the Central Security Forces rather than the military who deals with civil unrest and popular protest. Yet, even this “solution” to the problem of recurring popular revolt has proven at times uncertain. As in the military, the CSF has been the site of mutinies, one of which, in late February 1986, involved 20,000 low-paid conscripts who were put down only when the army entered the fray. During the early 1990s, Islamist protests against the authoritarian rule of Mubarak escalated into armed conflict, both in the slums of the cities and in Upper Egypt. Hundreds of militants, soldiers and innocent civilians were killed before the revolt was finally suppressed. This list leave out other significant moments of mass civil protest and contestation—like the massive protests against the First Gulf War, the US invasion of Iraq and Israel’s attacks on Lebanon and Gaza—but even so, the tally is impressive: no less than 10 major revolts and revolutions in 130 years. In other words, despite what commentators might say, modern Egyptians have never passively accepted the failed colonial or postcolonial states that fate has dealt them.

Many of these revolts have had their own poets. 1881 had the neo-classical qasidas of Mahmoud Sami al-Baroudi. 1919, the colloquial zajals of Bayram al-Tunsi. Salah Jahin became one of the leading colloquial poets of the 1952 Revolution, and his patriotic verse became core material for Abdel Halim Hafez, who pinned his career to Nasser. From the same period, Fu’ad Haddad’s mawwals also stand out—and are still sung today. Since the 1970s, it has been Ahmed Fouad Negm who has played the leading role as lyricist of militant opposition to the regimes of Egypt. For forty years, Negm’s colloquial poems—many set to music by Sheikh Imam—have electrified student, labor and dissident movements from the Egyptian underclass. Negm’s poetry ranges from praise (madh) for the courage of ordinary Egyptians, to invective (hija’) for Egypt’s overlords—and it is no accident that you could hear his songs being sung by the leftist activists who spearheaded the first day of revolt on January 25. Besides these poets, we could add many others—Naguib Surur, Abd al-Rahman al-Abnoudi, Tamim Barghouti—who have added to this literary-political tradition in their own ways.

But beyond these recognized names are thousands of other poets—activists all—who would never dare to protest publicly without an arsenal of clever couplet-slogans. The end result is a unique literary tradition whose power is now on full display across Egypt. Chroniclers of the current Egyptian revolt, like As’ad AbuKhalil, have already compiled lists of these couplets—and hundreds more are sure to come. For the most part, these poems are composed in a colloquial, not classical, register and they are extremely catchy and easy to sing. The genre also has real potential for humor and play—and remind us of the fact that revolution is also a time for celebration and laughter.

How to Do Things With Poetry

The poetry of this revolt is not reducible to a text that can be read and translated in words, for it is also an act in and of itself. That is, the couplet-slogans being sung and chanted by protesters do more than reiterate complaints and aspirations that have been communicated in other media. This poetry has the power to express messages that could not be articulated in other forms, as well as to sharpen demands with ever keener edges.

Consider the most prominent slogan being chanted today by thousands of people in Tahrir Square: “Ish-sha‘b/yu-rîd/is-qât/in-ni-zâm.” Rendered into English, it might read, “The People want the regime to fall”—but that would not begin to translate the power this simple and complex couplet-slogan has in its context. There are real poetic reasons why this has emerged as a central slogan. For instance, unlike the more ironic—humorous or bitter—slogans, this one is sincere and states it all perfectly clearly. Likewise, the register of this couplet straddles colloquial Egyptian and standard media Arabic—and it is thus readily understandable to the massive Arab audiences who are watching and listening. And finally, like all the other couplet-slogans being shouted, this has a regular metrical and stress pattern (in this case: short-LONG, short-LONG, short-LONG, short-SHORT-LONG). While unlike most others, this particular couplet is not rhymed, it can be sung and shouted by thousands of people in a unified, clear cadence—and that seems to be a key factor in why it works so well.

The prosody of the revolt suggests that there is more at stake in these couplet-slogans than the creation and distillation of a purely semantic meaning. For one thing, the act of singing and shouting with large groups of fellow citizens has created a certain and palpable sense of community that had not existed before. And the knowledge that one belongs to a movement bound by a positive collective ethos is powerful in its own right—especially in the face of a regime that has always sought to morally denigrate all political opposition. Likewise, the act of singing invective that satirizes feared public figures has an immediate impact that cannot be cannot be explained in terms of language, for learning to laugh at one’s oppressor is a key part of unlearning fear. Indeed, witnesses to the revolt have consistently commented that in the early hours of the revolt—when invective was most ascendant—protesters began to lose their fear.

And having lost that fear, Egyptians are showing no signs of wanting to go back. As the Mubarak regime has continued to unleash more violence, and as it steps up its campaign to sow chaos and confusion, the recitation of these couplet-slogans has continued, as if the act of repeating them helps the protesters concentrate on their core principles and demands. Only hours ago, as jets and helicopters attempted to intimidate protesters in Tahrir Square, it seemed as if the crowd understood something of this—for with each sortie, their singing grew louder and more focused. It was difficult to determine whether the crowd sustained the words, or the words the crowd.

Poetry and Contingency

Anyone who has ever chanted slogans in a public demonstration has also probably asked herself at some point: why am I doing this? what does shouting accomplish? The question provokes a feeling of embarrassment, the suspicion that the gesture might be rote and thus empty and powerless. Arguably, this nervousness is a form of performance anxiety that, if taken seriously, might remind us that the ritual of singing slogans was invented precisely because it has the power to accomplish things. When philosophers speak of “doing things with words,” they also remind us that the success of the locutionary act is tied to the conditions in which it is performed. This is another way to say that any speech act is highly contingent—its success only occurs in particular circumstances, and even then, its success is never a given. Success, if it is to occur, happens only in the doing of it.

Since January 25, Egyptians been leaping into the uncertainty of this revolutionary performance. They have now crossed multiple thresholds—and each time, they have acted with no guarantee of success. This is, I think, the core of their astonishing courage: at each point it has been impossible to say that victory is already theirs. Even now, six days into the revolt, we still cannot say how things will eventually turn out. Nor are there rules of history and previous examples that can definitively tell us. Certainly, revolutions follow patterns—and those who rise up tend to be the most diligent students of past uprisings. Activists in Cairo ask comrades in Tunis about tactics, while others try to glean Iran’s Green Revolution for lessons that might be applied now. Yet, in the end, each revolution is its own moment.

Those who decide to make their own history are, in the end, not only required to write their own script and build their own stage, they are also compelled to then play the new roles with enough force and conviction to make it cohere, even in the face of overwhelming violence. We have already seen one example of this re-scripting in the extraordinary, original pamphlet from Egypt entitled, “How to Revolt Intelligently.” The poetry of the streets is another form of writing, of redrafting the script of history in the here and now—with no assurances of victory, and everything in the balance.

The Riskiest Job in Iran

By Shirin Ebadi
Not so long ago, my colleague Nasrin Sotoudeh was the lawyer so many of us human rights defenders in Iran would call when our government harassed us or put one of us, or one of our family members, in jail. Sadly it is now Nasrin who is in jail. The government’s accusations against her include acting contrary to “national security”, “propaganda against the state”, and “membership” of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre, an organisation I founded in 2001. The government has also accused her of failing to wear hijab, the traditional Islamic covering for women. On some of these trumped-up charges she has been sentenced to 11 years in jail, and is now banned from practising law for 20 years.

This courageous 45-year-old mother of two young children is one of many in Iran who are targeted – and punished – for speaking up for the rights of others. Women are all too frequently on the receiving end of the Iranian regime’s wrath – as we know from the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, sentenced to be stoned to death for allegedly coNasrin-Sotoudeh-frei-02mmitting adultery. But what makes Nasrin’s case especially poignant is that it raises a fundamental question about Iran’s future. If the people who come to the defence of people whose human rights are violated cannot do their jobs, who will ensure that such values as equality and justice are upheld in Iran?

Iranian authorities arrested Nasrin at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison last September, during a visit to a client who is a political prisoner. Since then Nasrin has spent most of her time in solitary confinement. To protest against her illegal arrest, Nasrin has gone on several hunger strikes. Iranian officials have denied her access to a lawyer, and for the first month she was not allowed to talk to her family, even on the phone. At one point authorities detained her husband for speaking publicly about his wife’s case.

Why is the Iranian government so afraid of Nasrin Sotoudeh? It is clearly frustrated that an Iranian woman’s work is shining a light on the deplorable human rights situation in Iran. Nasrin is fearless in taking on cases that other lawyers carefully avoid, and for that she has earned respect around the globe. She took on the case of Zahra Bahrami, a Dutch-Iranian who was arrested for participating in post-election demonstrations in 2009. Zahra was denied her right to an appeal and, despite the intervention of Dutch authorities and a call by the European Union not to go ahead, she was executed without warning on 29 January.

Nasrin was my lawyer in a complaint I filed against Kayhan, a conservative newspaper, and she also defended me when Iranian authorities seized my assets in 2009. Nasrin has also taken on cases involving juvenile executions – Iran is one of the few countries in the world that still puts children to death. Nasrin’s case, among others, is making Iran’s failure to uphold basic human rights increasingly obvious. This is why some countries are pushing for a United Nations human rights council resolution on Iran, with a special rapporteur to carry out investigations into human rights abuses there. Such a push is encouraging, but it will still take a few more countries to reach a majority within the council.

Before her arrest the authorities summoned Nasrin to the tax office and froze her assets. While she was there she realised that the government was carrying out similar “investigations” of at least 30 other lawyers. If Iran is jailing its human rights defenders we need to step up efforts to ensure that justice is upheld there. Such concrete international action would be, in my mind, the best way to honour my colleague Nasrin.

Please visit Amnesty International’s urgent action page to find out how you can help:

Tragedy in Tehran

tragedy in tehranBy Fariba Amini

Saturday 4 June 2011

Originally published on Change for Equality

A father dies after a month in coma following a brain hemorrhage. His daughter is allowed to leave Evin prison to say her goodbyes. The authorities allow for the funeral procession. She stands in front of the crowd holding flowers. The plainclothes men of the Islamic Republic of Iran, trained to be vicious and merciless, attack her and beat her; she falls on the ground and dies. It is unfathomable but it happened just two days ago in plain daylight in Iran’s capital.

Haleh Sahabi who died at the funeral of her father was a member of Mothers for Peace; she had been sentenced to two years of imprisonment for her peaceful activism. She was the daughter of a leading member of Iran’s Freedom Movement, an organization that dated back to the Shah’s time. Her father had been in prison both under the Shah and under the Islamic Republic and tortured. He was eighty three when he died. She was in her mid fifties. They were buried side by side in a cemetery outside Tehran. Three generations of a well- known family-grandfather, father and daughter had fought for freedom and gone to prison for it.

In recent months, Iran’s many prisons and detention centers have been packed with civil right activists, human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers, many of them women, Nasrin, Bahareh, Mahdieh, Shabnam, Mahboubeh and many other courageous women are just a few names that come to mind. Haleh was their cellmate.

The Islamic Republic is determined to stifle Iran’s peace movement before crowds gather for any type of demonstration, even a funeral procession. Only a month earlier, a famous journalist and film critic, threw himself from his balcony and died a tragic death, away from his wife and his daughters. Siamak Pourzand was seventy- eight years old. He too had been imprisoned and tortured. He was not allowed to leave Iran.

The Arab spring in the Middle East has overshadowed much of the news from Iran. But we Iranians who are on Facebook or get the news daily or hourly from Iran, only hear the worst news, news that is now rarely reported in the world press. Iran is no more in the limelight. Libya, Yemen, and Syria have taken over, each regime bludgeoning its citizens who want some space, some freedom, a life without dictatorships of any color.

It was only two years ago after the Presidential elections, when Iran’s Democracy Movement was brutally crushed, its rank and file arrested and many of its leaders put under house arrest. The government was adamant to stop the wave of protest and it succeeded, at least temporarily. The government in Iran, wary of the Arab spring, wanted to stop its citizens from accomplishing a similar situation at all costs.

I did not know Haleh but my father knew the Sahabi family. He, as a member of Prime Minister Mosaddeq’s entourage, was imprisoned alongside Haleh’s grandfather and father. They were educated men, of highest integrity who wanted democracy and the rule of law. They did not see the fruit of their struggle and neither did Haleh. But maybe, just maybe, her son and our children will one day see a free and democratic Iran. In her very last interview, Haleh said that revenge is not our guiding light, but compassion is. Haleh’s death will not go in vain. Iran will see the spring of freedom, if not today, tomorrow.

Dear Haleh, rest in peace, on your father’s side. The women of Iran will continue your struggle. We will never forget, but we have to forgive, if only for you.

Tahrir Square: Back To Square One

by Robert Saleem Holbrook

women at tahrir square“The emancipation of women is not an act of charity, the result of a humanitarian , or compassionate attitude. The liberation of women is a fundamental necessity for the revolution, the guarantee of its continuity and the precondition for its victory. The main objective of the revolution is to destroy the system of exploitation and build a new society which releases the potentialities of human beings.-Samora Machel

On the evening of January 25, 2011 in anticipation of a protest planned at Tahrir Square a 26 year old Egyptian women named Asmaa Mahfouz released an on-line video announcing “I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and l will stand alone. And I’ll hold up a banner. Perhaps people will show some honor…” The following day on January 26 tens of thousands of Egyptians responded to her announcement by occupying Tahrir Square and in two weeks of protests, street battles and marches against government forces and thugs backed by the regime forced the ouster of the dictator Mubarak, the strongman of the Middle East. The world watched in awe as a people long oppressed by their own government took a stand against tyranny and brutality to assert their dignity and rights as free men and women. To quote Asmaa they “showed some honor” and for a moment inspired the world.

Sista Asmaa did not stand alone at Tahrir nor did other Egyptian women during the uprising, they stood along side men and fought with the same courage and dignity as their male partners. They lead chants, spoke at rallies, tended to the wounded, battled Mubarak’s thugs and celebrated in Tahrir when Mubarak was deposed. Women left Tahrir Square with a sense of empowerment, solidarity and hope for their earned roles in the future of a new Egypt. To quote Sarah Rifaat, a Tahrir protester; “For once, in the revolution, there were people who were veiled and unveiled. who had different ideologies but who focused not on the differences but on what brought them together”. Women were also impressed with their relationship with men at Tahrir, where both men and women fought side by side in a spirit of camaraderie. “What happened in Tahrir was a phenomenon, everyone was contributing equally, and it seemed natural” said Yasmine Khalifa, a student protester. So it was in the days following the uprising when women expected a prominent role within the new Egyptian society.

Now it seems however that Egyptian women are standing alone as they face setbacks after their performance at Tahrir. In the days following Mubarak’s ouster women protesters from Tahrir planned a Million Women March to assert their rights and to remind the military regime that ousted Mubarak that the uprising was not about removing one dictator but about transforming a society. In the days leading up to the march women were discouraged from participating in the march by the Military Council which released press statements that questioned the honor of women that attended the march. On the day of the march when a few hundred women defied the Military Councils warning and gathered in Tahrir Square men who only days before fought beside them at Tahrir heckled them with shouts of “Go home, the revolution is over” and “a women’s place is at home not in politics”. Ethar El—Katatney, an Egyptian women who writes a blog from Cairo expressed a deep sense of betrayal and disappointment at the treatment she and other female veterans of Tahrir experienced that day. The new society they hoped to help create was being blunted by men attempting to preserve their privileged position within Egyptian culture and the Military Council, remnants of the old regime, was desperate to divide the solidarity of the youth to prevent any real changes to the Egyptian state so it deployed the gender card and manipulated the men into undermining the revolutionary spirit of Tahrir.

Even worst than the treatment at the hands of the men at Tahrir on the day of the Million Women March was the treatment women protesters endured in the weeks following Tahrir when protesters again took to the streets to protest the slow pace the Military Council was enacting reforms. The Military detained hundreds of protesters and reports emerged that 17 female protesters were taken to a Military Barracks and subjected to “virginity tests” by nurses under the supervision of a male doctor. ls this the change men and women fought for at Tahrir? For those of us living in the West it is hard to imagine how brave it is for Egyptian women to even show up at protests, especially under the former regime of Mubarak. Sexual assault was a common tactic employed against women protesters by Mubarak’s regime. Under Mubarak the regime employed thugs to break up protests and to specifically target women protesters. Thugs would seize a woman protesting and drag her away into an alleyway or stairwell and gang rape her as a means of intimidation to discourage them from participating in future protests. CNN’s Middle East Correspondent Ben Wedermen reported this was a well known and widespread practice during Mubarak’s rule however what struck me besides the inhumanity of the practice was why CNN and the State Department never reported this or condemned it until it became apparent Mubarak was on his way out. CBS news correspondent Lara Logan who was brutally beaten and sexually assaulted alter being dragged away from her l crew during the celebrations at Tahrir Square the night of Mubarak’s ouster most likely was the victim of these thugs once employed by Mubarak, perhaps as payback for the U.S. abandoning Mubarak.

In a state that employed thugs to sexually assault women and used sexual abuse as a state policy of torture it is inevitable that these attitudes and practices will spill over into society for if the state practices or tolerates sexual abuse than society will become more tolerant of it. Especially in authoritarian states that control mass media, education and cast omnipresent shadows over basic civic and social life. The Wikileaks classified diplomatic cables revealed a diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Egypt stating that torture was so widespread in Egypt that it impacted every layer of society. Everyone from political dissidents to citizens brought in for routine questioning were subject to torture, often sexual abuse. It would be naive to believe that the official use of torture at this level would not intersect with Egyptian society and within this permissive atmosphere women, traditionally the most vulnerable segment of the population, suffer the consequences. So according to the Egyptian Center for Human Rights the past decade has experienced a marked rise in the rape and groping of Egyptian women. Coincidentally this same decade followed the end of the war between armed Egyptian Islamist movements and Mubarak’s regime which used sexual torture as a matter of routine in this war that tore at the social fabric of Egypt during the l990’s. The same center also found that 83% of Egyptian women said they had suffered sexual harassment and that 62% of Egyptian men admitted harassing women. 53% of the men blamed women for bringing it on themselves.

I’m not a social scientist so l cannot explain all of the complex reasons for discrimination against women within Egyptian society or for that Western society as l’m sure the statistics of women harassed in the U.S. probably mirrors or exceeds Egypts. What l can say is that if the Egyptian Revolution is to proceed and build upon the gains of Tahrir Egyptian men must accept women as their partners in this struggle, not convenient fodder to be called out when the going gets rough. Egyptian women were empowered by their participation in the uprising and it would be a betrayal of the spirit of Tahrir if Egyptian men, having removed a tyrant in concert with women, turn around and oppress the aspirations of Egyptian women who want to contribute to the transformation of Egyptian society and assert their natural rights.

l can also say that instead of attempting to silence and suppress Egyptian women the men should be listening to them as the women have demonstrated far better long term vision and political maturity than the men as evidenced by the Million Women March days after Mubarak’s ouster. When many men celebrated it as a victory women appear to have viewed Mubarak’s ousting as a first step towards dismantling the entire repressive state g Mubarak created. They continue to be the most vocal critics of the Military Council and remnants of the corrupt state while many of the opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, remain silent and more concerned with gaining electoral victories in the upcoming elections that will legitimize the remnants of Mubarak’s regime. Women having suffered gender discrimination instinctively knew the battle to transform Egyptian society had just begun while the men, accustomed to gender privilege, once having removed Mubarak still enjoyed their privileged role within Egyptian society. This doesn’t mean that nothing has changed since Mubarak’s ouster for Egyptian men but unlike women who face gender discrimination and suppression on a daily basis men have emerged with some breathing room to openly express their political beliefs while women are reminded to remain silent. Egyptian women have an incentive in the form of daily oppression that makes them far more willing to confront the old remnants of the regime and push the uprising from revolt to revolution. In a society that traditionally views a women’s place as outside politics the assertiveness of Egyptian women is a difficult phenomenon for Egyptian men to embrace.

The unease in which Egyptian men view the recent rise of women’s assertiveness after Tahrir could easily be misinterpreted and misrepresented as Western values intruding and trampling upon Egypt’s culture, customs and religion as the idea of the emancipation of women, and by extension human rights, has traditionally been used by Western imperialist powers against the Third World to undermine revolutions, promote Western financial interests and create divisions within traditional societies to make the exploitation of the natural resources more easy for international corporations. In short whenever the West promotes human rights in a Third World nation it is often a means to turning the societies into little America’s and/or consumers as opposed to allowing the people to develop their own authentic expression of human rights.

As radicals in the West the concept of the emancipation of women should not imply that Egyptian women should become “clone”‘ of American and Western women or that they will find empowerment in high heels and Hillary Clinton power suits. The message we should be sending to Egyptian men who want to remove women from the revolutionary struggle is that Egyptian women must be permitted to develop their own voice that defines what their role and participation in the Egyptian (and regional) uprising will be as partners in the struggle to rid their countries and the region of Western puppet-dictators (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, etc) and oppressive tyrants (Syria, Libya) and most importantly what their role A will be in the new society that will emerge from the collapse of these regimes.

At the root of the empowerment of women is men coming to terms with recognizing women as our partners in struggle, however difficult that may be, as well as some . of the built in gender privileges we may inherit . Recognizing this does not deny distinctions between men and women and the unique roles both genders play within society. What it means is recognizing that women can and should be given the opportunity to advance within society as far as their education and determination takes them. l believe this is all they ask if us, as well as a little encouragement.

If any Egyptian men are under the assumption that these are Western values or standards they should understand that human rights and women’s rights are not the sole possession of the West and discrimination and oppression of women is not exclusive to Middle Eastern societies and cultures as the West often comes up short in its protection of women’s ° rights and human rights in general. Also if Egyptian men have any doubts about the ability of women to participate in the push to transform Egyptian society they only need to look around at the role women are playing in the uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain, where women activists are leading the charge against authoritarian regimes. They should also be mindful of an Arabic proverb that says “A nation/tribe that does not honor its women is like a bird with a broken wing, it cannot take flight”. lf Egyptian men continue to deny women as partners in the transformation of their society the Egyptian Uprising will never take flight from uprising to revolution. As the uprising of Tahrir now takes the turn of replacing an official state of repression with a far more insidious attitude of repression that ultimately betrays the spirit of Tahrir we all have to wonder where this leaves women in the new Egypt being created and whether or not women will find themselves alone and shut out of the new Egypt they helped usher in.

Robert Saleem Holbrook
175 Progress Dr.Waynesburg,
PA 15370


The Shoe Thrower’s Brother: An interview with Uday al-Zaidi

On February 27 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave his parliament 100 days to “reform” their sometimes totally nonfunctional ministries or face consequences, in response “to people’s demands” as he put it. Those demands have taken the form of some of the least noted events of the Arab Spring: large mobilizations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, mass acts of civil disobedience and a general strike in Mosul, and the resignations of several governors all over Iraq, including two Basra governors. The Iraqi state has responded violently; with curfews, live ammunition, and wide scale arrests (signaled by Iraqis calling March 18th, “The Friday of Prisoners.”) That deadline ended June 7th, and many Iraqi civil society leaders are preparing for renewed protests this summer, calling June 10th, the “Friday of Resolution and Departure.” One such organizer is Baghdad-based Uday al-Zaidi, leader of an organization called “The Popular Movement to Save Iraq” and the brother of journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi, who gained renown for throwing his shoes at then president George Bush.

The past three months have also seen a large shift in al-Maliki’s position on the presence of US troops in Iraq, from insisting on their scheduled withdrawal at the end of 2011, to allowing for the possibility of singing a new agreement extending their stay after “a national referendum.” Iraqis have been discussing at length what they see as this double crisis of legitimacy of the present Iraqi government: an utter lack of ability or interest in providing the most basic of services, and obedience to both a deeply unpopular military occupation as well as regional forces. Grassroots organizers meanwhile have seen this as an opening to make their protests really have an impact. In the following interview, Uday discusses his brothers, what he thinks has been driving these protests, who is participating, as well as the most prominent demands. The interview was conducted and translated by Ali Issa on May 25th, and was edited and produced by Joyce Wagner.

(For more on organizing in Iraq, see


Egypt: A Multi-Generational Revolt

by: Jessica Winegar

(originally published on

In the mainstream Western and Arab media, Egypt’s revolution is often presented as a revolution of the youth. While it is true that young activists planned the January 25th demonstrations and organized and raised support throughout much of the process leading up to that day, this uprising would not have succeeded in ousting the President and Cabinet, and would not be continuing, were it not for older generations of Egyptians. Many of us living in Egypt during the first massive demonstrations kept saying, “We never thought this would happen.” But in retrospect, it was as clear as day. For the past few years, workers had launched thousands of strikes protesting the effects of what was a fierce application of neoliberal economic policy in what might soon be called the Gamal Mubarak shadow presidency. These workers laid necessary groundwork for the uprising by creating (anew) bonds of solidarity as well as by raising awareness of the widespread nature of the deplorable working and living conditions of average Egyptians. In many cases, the majority of these striking workers were in their 40s and 50s. Pensioners also demonstrated and fought against the privatization of health insurance and the theft of billions of pension funds. From the beginning, this has been a multi-generational revolution. As the slogans go, “The People Want to Overthrow the Regime, the Government, etc.” Recognizing this fact is extremely important at this juncture, because transitional government figures have started referring to the uprising as a “youth” uprising and the demands of the people as demands of the “youth” in a familiar paternalistic way that diminishes not only the importance of what has happened, but also the demands that the vast majority of Egyptians, no matter their age, have of the post-Mubarak government.

[Image by Aida Khalil]

I spent much of the period from January 25th, when the mass demonstrations began, until February 11, when the President left office, in the company of upper middle class men and women in their 50s and 60s who had been leftist student activists in the 1970s. During the Mubarak regime, they had watched their youthful dreams of creating a just society crumble before their eyes, as neoliberal capitalism, authoritarianism, and corruption took vicious root in Egypt. They themselves sought greater stability in their lives and so, with marriage and children, they hunkered down in decent apartments and built comfortable lives for themselves and their families. But their struggle, and their disappointment, was marked on their bodies. Most were former political prisoners, one also a victim of torture, and they now suffer from different combinations of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems, depression and anxiety, and cigarette addiction. The Mubarak era – with the stresses it caused and its failing health system — had left its imprint on them and others in their families, even though they are relatively privileged compared to other Egyptians. Meanwhile, their passionate 1970s activism had, in the Mubarak years, been limited to signing intellectuals’ petitions or going to the occasional demonstration and being cordoned off by the security police. Those who are doctors continued treating people in government hospitals, for salaries that did not remotely keep pace with the cost of living, in a way one described as a “social band-aid.” All tried to teach their children what social justice means. One man, a doctor, had continued the fight for affordable and quality health care with policymakers on the national stage.

But when the uprising started, their passion blossomed again, taking on new energy. Those who were healthy enough to go to the demonstrations went, coming back with hoarse voices and exciting stories of protest. Others donated money and medical supplies to the makeshift hospitals and clinics in Tahrir. Some of the men went down and served, alongside the young and less economically well-off, in the neighborhood watch, formed to protect us from the criminals released en masse from prisons by the government at the same time it called the police off the streets. Some of the women made food and drinks for the neighborhood watch teams. All of them encouraged their children, nieces, and nephews now in their teens and twenties, to go to the demonstrations. They gave them rides and sometimes money to purchase supplies of food and drink to sustain the large groups of the protestors. They were glued to al-Jazeera when they were not doing anything else, completely amazed that what they always hoped to accomplish was actually taking place. Whenever a piece of good news was announced, they jumped up and cheered, called friends, discussed the possibilities. Whenever a piece of bad news came on the air, and especially when Tahrir became a frightening battleground, they chain-smoked, cried, hugged, swore at the regime, and called whatever friends and family had been going to Tahrir to make sure they were safe. They also argued with friends, store-owners, cab drivers, and anyone else they came into contact with who did not support the revolution, trying to convince them of its merits.

[Image by Aida Khalil]

But it was not just these former student activists in their late middle age who helped, in many ways behind the scenes, to execute this uprising and who are working to see the revolution through to its end.   In every major gathering in Tahrir and elsewhere around the country, one can find large numbers of Egyptians in their 40s, 50s, and 60s participating in the demonstrations, raising their fists and voices side-by-side with the youth of the country. During the sit-in of Tahrir, many of them were also spending the nights in the square in tents, giving up the comforts of home for the cold, hard city streets to fight for a better life for the younger generation and for whatever remained of their own lives. With the health problems and in many cases poverty evident on their bodies, the time they had left was disturbingly unclear. These Egyptians are the ones who can create signs and chants that express what it was like to live through all of Mubarak’s 30-year rule as an adult, to have the horizons of one’s entire adult life limited, and in many cases to have that life and the lives of their loved ones stolen from them as a result of the political system. The simultaneous solidarity demonstrations of various professional syndicates in the early days of the uprising, and the continued strikes and sit-ins all over the country, are also heavily participated in and often mounted by people of older generations. Since February 11, every day in nearly every government setting, older workers join their younger comrades to try to address the inequalities of their work environment in other ways as well, such as coordinating petitions, writing accounts of the corruption they have witnessed for sympathetic supervisors and the press, or making small but significant changes in their work environment that no one can protest without appearing to be against the revolution (an unpopular position to take right now). Recently at a government cultural institution, for example, older employees were able to contribute a longer thread of stories of corruption for a grievance report they were compiling simply because they had been there longer.

[Image by Jessica Winegar]

Also in Tahrir, Alexandria, Damanhour, Suez, and other cities, one can find pro-democracy demonstrators in their late 60s and 70s. These men and women had been raised on Nasser’s revolutionary language; their childhood, teens, or twenties had been filled with the promise of a just and prosperous society. But their potential was curtailed by the steep decline in quality of life from the later Nasser years through Sadat and Mubarak. They still agitate for a better conclusion to their own lives. One friend, whose respiratory problems from the massive increase in pollution in the Mubarak era only permitted her to go to Tahrir for a short time in the mornings (she reasoned that it was good to have people present during these “down times” as well), took a picture on February 2, 2011 of one tired looking older man sitting on the curb. He had a handmade sign that protested both how the government took billions out of the pension fund and never returned it, and how he couldn’t get a needed loan from the bank because without the pension he did not have enough collateral. More recently, during the demonstrations on February 18, 2011 calling for the overthrow of the transitional cabinet, a man held a sign that said, “I lived the October victory (1973 war with Israel) as a fighter, I lived the January 25th victory as a participant. [My life’s journey] has to end right so I can die with satisfaction.”

On the night of Mubarak’s departure, I rushed to Tahrir as did thousands of Cairenes. My subway car was filled with young people who had spontaneously invented chants that expressed their joy. One of these was, “They said we were the youth of Kentucky (Fried Chicken), but we were the ones who protected you (Egypt).” (It rhymes in Arabic.) Another: “We are the youth of the internet, not those only concerned with dating.” I sat across from one man in his late 70s who sat with a smile on his face, staring at the teen and twenty-something men in amazement and admiration, with tears of joy in his eyes. He kept saying to me in English, “Revolution. Revolution.”   He was going to Tahrir too, and when I got there, amidst the massive celebrating crowds, I saw countless older men and women, some quite old and in wheelchairs or with canes. They walked with their spouses, and/or children and in many cases grandchildren. Some of the mothers and grandmothers ululated. Fathers and grandfathers participated in the moving cheer, “Lift your head up, you are Egyptian!” It seemed that they had once been able to lift their heads up in pride as Egyptians, and although now many were stooped from the effects of living under an oppressive dictatorship, they were clearly so thrilled that their offspring could now lift their heads proudly and that they were among the fortunate ones to live to see this day.

It is true that this uprising was started by the “youth of the Internet,” but the participation of Egyptians of all ages is giving it its true force.

Jessica Winegar is the author of Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt, 2006.

Jafar Panahi: This is Not a Film

Most prints for films premiering at Cannes are delivered to the Croisette by private helicopter, or clutched in the sweaty paws of their devoted directors. Jafar Panahi’s new film, This Is Not a Film, was smuggled into the country on a USB stick buried inside a cake posted from Iran to Paris.

Panahi, the virtuoso neo-realist who won a prize at Cannes for his debut, The White Balloon, in 1995, and, at 50, now has one of the most sagging mantlepieces in cinema, is currently stuck in Iran, awaiting the verdict of his appeal against a six-year prison term, and 20-year-ban on film-making, talking to the press and travelling abroad.

The sentence was passed in December 2010, after the Iranian government accused him of “colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic”. Panahi denies the charges. So This Is Not A Film was presented by its nominal director, Mojtaba Mirtahasebi, who spends a day with Panahi in his high-rise apartment, sipping tea, chewing sugarlumps and watching the director map out scenes from a screenplay he’s been working on.

It sounds earnest: in fact it’s fantastically entertaining, full of incidents that would be too far-fetched for the wildest farce: endless animals get dumped on the director to babysit, for instance, including a 6ft iguana which paces the apartment restlessly, as unhappy to be cooped up as his temporary master.

For most of the film, Panahi endeavours to exploit a loophole in his sentence by being in front of the camera, rather than behind. But he becomes disillusioned with the project – “Why would you make a film if you could just talk through it?” – and he’s a compulsive director, filming his companion and any visitors on his iPhone; documenting the scenes outside the window. The pair even manage to have some fun with the censorship – the end credits give special thanks to a blank screen; that title feels more tongue-in-cheek than drum-beating. “We have a saying in Iran,” said Mirtahasebi, “that when hairdressers get bored they cut each others’ hair. That is what we were doing: filming one another.”

The image is as amusing as it is poignant: for both, simply the documentation of events is enough to make such a project valuable. It’s also a tool in lobbying round the world for Panahi’s liberty. “I think making a film is like giving birth to a child – it’s a very complicated thing,” said Mirtahasebi. “But I think at the same time to spread it around is more difficult – it’s like actually raising a child. And that is the function of festivals like Cannes.” It is also the function of emerging technologies: Panahi speaks passionately about the role of the digital world in creating lasting archives, even if they cannot be shared at the time.

Mirtahasebi, too, suggests that a familiarity with the online world gave them a natural advantage over the Iranian establishment, which he suspected of ignorance about both cinema itself and the internet: “They don’t realise that they can’t adapt it to fit their own vision.” Indeed, Panahi watched the Cannes press conference unfold through a Skype and an iPad camera – although all interaction was, by necessity, one way. His colleague, meanwhile, was visibly nervous to be presenting the film in public, eager to emphasise how closely he needed to monitor his words to protect his own safety once he returns to Iran (even the type of cake was information not deemed shareable).

Solidarity with his colleague, he confirmed, was a fraught business. “We have decided to take the risks of what we’re doing. Step by step, we are trying to fight. This has a price. But we wanted to use that energy that is not being used in film-making. We didn’t want to give up.” Panahi’s arrest in December was not his first. During last year’s Cannes festival, Panahi was on hunger strike in prison in Tehran to protest against being imprisoned on unspecified charges. The actor Juliette Binoche paid tribute to him in an emotional press conference, and, accepting the best actress award for Certified Copy (directed by the Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami), held up a placard bearing Panahi’s name. These actions were widely believed to have aided his release less than a week later.

But his freedom proved shortlived. One might have forgiven Mirtahasebi and Panahi for feeling sceptical about the potential leverage of cinema. Martin Scorsese, Ken Loach, and thousands of others have signed petitions and campaigned for his release. Yet to no apparent avail. Surely there must be some disillusion? “Not at all,” said Mirtahasebi. “Hope is what is guarding us. It’s how we are able to work and to carry on. Hope is the last thing we’ve got.”

Gay Girl in Damascus blogger joins ranks of Syria’s detained

by: Nidaa Hassan
(Originally published at The Guardian)
Amina Arraf, who holds dual Syrian and US citizenship and blogs under the name Amina Abdallah

“If gays in syriawe want to live in a free country,” Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari wrote on her blog on 27 April, “we must begin by living as though we are already in a free country.”

And so the 35-year-old Syrian, an outspoken lesbian, feminist and anti-government protester, continued to post highly critical entries on the blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus, even as the security situation in her home country became ever more precarious, and her own position increasingly at risk.

She was teargassed, arrested and detained with other protesters at demonstrations in March and April; at one rally she saw a young man shot dead in front of her. But “for those of us who have taken part in the protests,” she wrote, “there’s no going back. For decades, we were afraid; be too critical of the regime, be seen as stepping out of official views, and one might expect a visit from the security police or a trip to a jail. Be more vocal and publicly call for the overthrow of the government and be prepared for either exile or death. Those of us who criticised things were very careful with our words and the forums we raised criticisms in. Now, though, everything has changed; too many have crossed those lines for there to be a going back.”

Late in April, two men from the Syrian security services came to her house late at night to arrest her; her father stood up to them and they left. A week later, however, both she and her father had been forced into separate safe houses, moving from house to house, meeting only in disguise. Her American mother (Araf holds dual citizenship) and other family members had fled to Beirut, but her father, from an old and respected family, was determined to stay in Damascus, and so Araf stayed too, continuing to blog: “Our revolution will win; we will have a free and democratic Syria soon. I know it in my bones.”

On Monday evening, Araf was silenced, for now at least. En route to a rendezvous with co-ordinators of the protest movement, she was snatched from a Damascus street by three armed men and bundled into a vehicle. Despite the frantic efforts of her father and wider family, nothing has been heard from her since.

Araf’s kidnap, by men her family believe are members of Syria’s security services, makes her one of the best known of many thousands who have been detained since protests bubbled up across the country in mid-March, swelling to become one of the bloodiest and most protracted of the Arab Spring’s popular uprisings. According to Amnesty International, at least 750 people have been killed by the security forces; as many as 10,000 have been picked up by one of the country’s diverse security service groups, many of them held incommunicado. At least 12 people have died in custody, and reports of torture are common.

Though Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, announced an amnesty last week for those detained before 31 May, Amnesty says the releases have been selective and ad hoc, and called for the immediate release of all detainees.

Even before the latest unrest, bloggers and others challenging the government had been regularly locked up. Tal al-Mallouhi, a 20-year-old Palestinian-Syrian blogger from Homs, was sentenced to five years in jail in February, accused of spying for the US. Other bloggers and dissidents have faced similar fates.

Though she had begun her blog in February principally as a defiant declaration of her sexuality and to explore lesbian and gender issues in Syria, Araf was rapidly swept up in the popular protests, and began writing impassioned, exhilarated, often very moving posts about her country and its longed-for future.

“What a time to be in Syria! What a time to be an Arab! What a time to be alive!” she wrote on 24 March. A week later, expressing her dismay at Assad’s refusal to grant expected reforms, she wrote: “Come Friday, when Jumaa prayers are done, we will be out, in every city and every street, calling with one voice: “SOURIYA! AL HOURIYA!” FREEDOM!”

The blog also contained extracts from an unpublished autobiography, detailing her teenage years in the US; she also wrote of her love of science fiction and Gil Scott Heron, and posted erotic lesbian poetry. At one point, her father laughingly reveals, she had been “on the list” forof those charged with finding a suitable wife for the man who is now Syria’s president, and who went on to marry a British-Syrian, Asma al Akhras. Why hadn’t he put her forward? “Do you think I hate you? I would not wish to be related to them.”

But Araf was also clear about the risks she was running, writing chillingly about the regime’s use of torture in a post entitled “Why we fight”. Torture, she wrote, is “routine and normal”. “It is what all of us expect. It is why we keep our nails as short as possible so they can’t be pulled off. It is why we were slow to come out into the streets … It is why you don’t see so many women in the protests. What do you think happens to women who get picked up?”

The following Araf had gained was evident when, within minutes of her disappearance being reported, campaigns were launched on Facebook and elsewhere to free her, with Syrian activists tweeting extracts from her blog.

Some hours after reporting her disappearance, Araf’s cousin Rania Ismail, whom she had asked to post to her blog if anything happened to her, wrote a brief update. “I have been on the telephone with both her parents and all that we can say right now is that she is missing … We do not know who took her so we do not know who to ask to get her back. It is possible that they are forcibly deporting her. From other family members who have been imprisoned there, we believe that she is likely to be released fairly soon. If they wanted to kill her, they would have done so. That is what we are all praying for.”

Nidaa Hassan is a pseudonym for a journalist in Damascus.

Essential Readings: Iran

by: Raha Iranian Feminist Collective

[Image by Farhad Rajabali] [Image by Farhad Rajabali. Originally published at Jadaliyya]

In recent years, there has been a deluge of popular English-language writings by Iranians in exile, as well as hand-wringing public policy books by U.S.-based think tank pundits, all insisting on the same basic message: Iran represents a geo-political problem of unparalleled importance. While the stated goal of these books and organizations is to educate the English-reading global public about Iran, very often the message comes laced with support for militarily enforced regime change and full-scale neo-liberalization. Case in point: the mission statement of the Iran Democracy Project, a well-established California-based think tank, claims that its “central goal is to help the West understand the complexities of the Muslim world, and to map out possible trajectories for transitions to democracy and free markets in the Middle East, beginning with Iran.”

From problematic bestsellers to superficial fare treating Iranian politics as an impossible paradox needing U.S. expertise to be solved, what so much of this literature lacks is a historical understanding of Iranian political modernity and social movements. Without this understanding, the daily news coming out of Iran, not to mention U.S. and European state responses to that news, seems inscrutable at best and terrifying at worst.

Thirty years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution catapulted Iranian affairs to the forefront of global politics, the world witnessed an explosion of popular domestic opposition to the apparent electoral fraud of the Ahmadinejad regime and his clerical backers in 2009. Despite some mainstream coverage of these unprecedented events, not enough context was provided by a global media quick to denounce the regime’s violence but less eager (or able) to give credit to the ongoing peoples’ movements — most importantly women’s, students’, and labor organizations — that provided the strategic and moral backbone of these (as well as earlier) anti-regime protests. Frighteningly, the Iranian citizenry’s outpouring of deserved frustration and anger was painted by many in the U.S. government as a valid excuse to import the same kind of “democracy” that had been militarily delivered to the Iraqi and Afghan people. To add to the confusion, some factions of the U.S.- and Europe-based left rushed to support the Iranian state against the protesters’ accusations of systematic violence, brutal repression, and economic malfeasance, ostensibly because of the regime’s illusory anti-imperialist credentials. (For Raha’s response to this messy discourse see our recent statement.)

Despite the above, the situation is not so grim. We in Raha know that — much like in neighboring countries experiencing the Arab Spring — people’s aspirations and movements in Iran flourish despite both domestic and international pressure. Below we have put together a list of historical texts, artistic works, and links to political statements and videos that offer a richer and more nuanced understanding of Iran and Iranians.

Historical Context:

Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton University Press, 1982) and A History of Modern Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Iran’stwentieth century history is bookended by two major revolutionary movements: the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, and what came to be known as the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The first revolution was an attempt to implement constitutional law and to curtail the Qajar regime’s dealings with then imperial powers Russia and Britain. The second revolution was an attempt to wrest power away from the repressive, U.S.-backed Pahlavi regime, which held the dubious distinction of maintaining one of the largest military and prison apparatuses alongside one of the poorest populations in the world. That is to say, in their formative stages, both revolutionary surges were attempts to fight what many Iranians have long considered their twin oppressors: este’maar and estebdaad, or external colonialism and internal despotism. Contemporary Iranian politics cannot be understood without this important historical framing. Abrahamian, one of the most prolific and thorough historians of modern Iran, provides just this context. Importantly, he also provides a detailed analysis of the Iranian left in this formative era. The first book listed here is the longer text; there really is no better introduction to twentieth century Iranian political history in English. For a shorter version of the same narrative, see the second book. (For other excellent works that cover the same era see also Iran: A People Interrupted by Hamid Dabashi and Modern Iran by Nikki Keddie.)

Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men (Wiley Publishers, 2008)

Kinzer is an American journalist who has written the most accessible analysis of the CIA-engineered coup against democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, which returned the American puppet Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the Peacock Throne. Though Kinzer’s diplomatic history doesn’t delve into Iranian sources, he adequately reveals the secret machinations that led to the overthrow of the popular Mossadegh, whose apparent crime was attempting to nationalize Iran’s oil resources. The coup remains a formative event in the historical memory of Iranians, though most in the country today are too young to have lived through it. This incident casts a long shadow that continues to lend emotive weight to the current regime’s anti-U.S. rhetoric, and fuels the necessary skepticism toward U.S. motives from those who nonetheless oppose the current Iranian regime.

Said Amir Arjomand, After Khomeini: Iran After His Successors (Oxford University Press, 2009)

For those interested in the major players of the post-Khomeini era and the changes at the level of the state, as well as those who don’t necessarily understand the important differences (and struggles for control) among powerful individuals such as Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, Rafsanjani, etc., this is the book.

The Modern State:

Afshin Marashi, Nationalizing Iran (University of Washington Press, 2008)

Despite the often-racialist rhetoric of many stringent Iranian nationalists — who boast of an ancient greatness often pitted against Iran’s Arab, Central, and South Asian neighbors — Iran is a multi-ethnic society whose history is intimately bound up with that of its neighbors. Iran, as a national entity, is as modern a political construction as any other nation. In this text, Marashi masterfully reveals the twentieth century colonial origins of the myth of “Aryan-ness” shared by some Iranian and Indian nationalists alike, a mythology that has unfortunately colored the analysis of too many Iranian nationalists and members of the Iranian left. We in Raha believe that for Iranian politics to move forward, Iranians must abandon their insistence that they are a people apart from their region.

Darius Rejali, Torture and Modernity (Westview Press, 1994)

One of the popular tropes in U.S. and European mainstream discourses is that the Islamic Republic is nothing but a giant prison. Rejali, on the other hand, reminds us that the contemporary situation in Iran has its roots in the Pahlavi era, when prisons were modernized along American lines and the Shah’s secret police (SAVAK) was trained by the CIA. Rather than seeing the prison system (and its employment of torture) in the Islamic Republic as a barbaric throwback imposed by “Islam,” Rejali argues that Iran’s security apparatus is a direct outgrowth of its establishment as a modern state. (For an interesting interview with Rejali, see “Six Questions with Darius Rejali” by Scott Horton. Here, Rejali reminds us that, “the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979 was the revolution against torture. When the Shah criticized Khomayni as a blackrobed Islamic medieval throwback, Khomayni replied, look who is talking, the man who tortures . . . People joined the revolutionary opposition because of the Shah’s brutality, and they remembered who installed him. If anyone wants to know why Iranians hated the U.S. so, all they have to do is ask what America’s role was in promoting torture in Iran.”)

Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, Conceiving Citizens: Women and the Politics of Motherhood in Iran (Oxford University Press, 2011)

In her most recent work, Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet reveals the degree to which women’s sexuality and health has become a near-obsession of the modern Iranian state. Rather than re-hashing those gendered questions that obsess the U.S. media (such as veiling), Kashani-Sabet shows the extent to which the modern state (both in its secular and religious forms) has shaped debates on gender, sexuality, and health in Iran through a discourse on “nationalist” motherhood. That is to say, Iran – much like its Arab and South Asian neighbors – has seen a gendered nationalist rhetoric claiming that the role of women is the raising of “strong/good” (male) citizens. Gender is an undeniably critical component to understanding Iran, though probably not in the ways we have been led to believe.

Arzoo Osanloo, The Politics of Women’s Rights in Iran (Princeton University Press, 2009)

This book — which spans a later era than Kashani-Sabet’s work — examines the means through which gender has been reconfigured as part of the new state-building project of the Islamic Republic. Osanloo looks at the government’s use of human rights and women’s rights discourses, as well as how that language trickled down into the lives of women in unpredictable ways.

Social Movements:

March 1979 Women’s Protests

This documentary — made by French documentary filmmakers — offers a vivid depiction of the Iranian women’s movement amidst the revolutionary fervor of March 1979. This short film is mandatory viewing for those interested in the events of the 1979 revolution, insofar as it captures a moment when women vied for an alternative vision for post-revolutionary Iran.

Nima Naghibi, Rethinking Global Sisterhood (University of Minnesota Press, 2007)

This book offers a historical perspective on the relationship between Western women/feminism and women in Iran, with a chapter specifically about the March 1979 events featured in the documentary listed above. A must read for anyone interested in transnational solidarity and feminism that doesn’t reproduce imperial hierarchies.

One Million Signatures Campaign

This brief video gives an overview of the major grassroots women’s rights movement that began in 2006. The One Million Signatures Campaign has gained prominence as an organization that insists on non-hierarchical organizational structures and on face-to-face encounters in their daily work. They are an inspiration.

Manijeh Nasrabadi, “Letter from Tehran” (June 2010)

On the anniversary of the Green uprising, Raha-member Manijeh Nasrabadi interviewed Iranian feminist activists in Tehran about their year(s) of upheaval.

“Three Decades of Labor Struggles in Iran”

This video outlines the work of the Iranian labor movement, as well as the difficult conditions facing working people in Iran today. Also see Iran Labor Report and especially the most recent May Day statement issued by several workers’ organizations.

Asef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran (Zed Books, 1987) and Street Politics: Poor People’s Movements in Iran (Columbia University Press, 1997)

Bayat is the pre-eminent scholar of the remarkable democratic people’s councils (shuras) that emerged in the wake of the 1979 revolution, as well as other working class struggles in the Islamic Republic. Again, these books give a sense of the revolution as a contested struggle over the future, rather than a homogenous movement under Khomeini’s thumb.

Nader Hashemi and Danny Postal, eds, The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (Melville House, 2011)

Featuring important pieces by some of the most vocal commentators on the Green Movement that began in 2009 (among them Hamid Dabashi, Mohsen Kadivar, Juan Cole, and a number of green activists based in Iran), this anthology includes essays that were circulating during the most active months of the protests, and thus serves as both primary and secondary documentation of this democratic protest wave.

Manijeh Nasrabadi, “Gender, Class and Security Politics in Iran”

This talk from a February 2011 NYU teach in sponsored by Social Text considers the impact of the Arab Spring on the volatile situation of repression and dissent in Iran.

Fiction and Poetry:

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Missing Soluch, translated by Kamran Rastegar (Melville House Press, 2007)

Written just a few years before the 1979 revolution, Missing Soluch is among the masterpieces by Iranian novelist Mahmoud Dowlatabadi. Focusing on life in a small village in Khorasan, Iran, this novel beautifully reveals the limitations and failures of the Pahlavi development project as well as the dynamics of a working class family. Dowlatabadi was himself a sympathizer of a major revolutionary Marxist guerrilla organization in the late 1970s; though this novel doesn’t deal explicitly with those politics, it is nonetheless mandatory reading for those interested in pre-revolutionary life in Iran.

Forugh Farrkhzhad, Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzhad, translated by Sholeh Wolpé (University of Arkansas Press, 2007)

Forugh Farrokhzhad is one of the most beloved modern Iranian poets. Her work explores sensuality and femininity unlike that of any other writer; her poetry features both lyricism and a sense of the ironic that few have matched. Her short film, The House is Black, is also a masterpiece. She is for many of us a feminist and anti-authoritarian hero.


The Prison Papers of Bozorg Alavi, edited and translated by Donne Raffat (Syracuse University Press, 1985)

Bozorg Alavi was a well-known novelist and among the founders of the Marxist Tudeh party in the 1940s. This book includes his Scrap Papers From Prison, the first Iranian prison memoir as well as a classic of Iran’s modern literature. Alavi’s brilliant, Kafka-esque narrative serves as a damning reminder of the first Pahlavi monarch’s authoritarian policies and reveals the degree to which political repression had been entrenched in Iran before the filling of the prisons of the Islamic Republic.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Shah of Shahs (Vintage Press, 1982)

This is a movingly written and politically astute account of the conditions that led to the 1979 revolution. Kapuscinski, a journalist who wrote about many anti-colonial revolutions, travelled to Iran in the final years of the Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign. His account chillingly portrays the paranoia among ordinary Iranians due to the ubiquitous presence of the Shah’s notorious secret police force (SAVAK), as well as the poverty and despair created by the Shah’s “modernization” policies.

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (Pantheon, 2003)

This bestselling graphic memoir (also an animated film) chronicles the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath through the eyes of a young girl whose parents are leftists. Satrapi gives a nuanced account of Iranians’ twin struggle against foreign intervention and internal despotism while also telling a moving coming of age story that challenges many Western assumptions about Iranian women and society.

Shahla Talebi, Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran (Stanford University Press, 2011)

This newly published book is arguably the best memoir written in English by an Iranian about Iran, though it will almost certainly not receive the praise that more sensational fare has received. Talebi is an activist who spent over a decade in Iranian prisons, first under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s reign, and then again for many years in the Islamic Republic. Unlike texts such as Prisoner of Tehran and My Life as a Traitor, which seem to believe that the Islamic Republic created repression out of thin air, Ghosts of Revolution is an explicitly political book that recounts the important historical events that have shaped both the pre- and post- revolutionary years. Talebi is a sensitive storyteller and politically savvy narrator who reminds us that notorious Iranian prisons Evin and Ghazal Hesar are part of the same political universe as the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay; unfortunately, the Islamic Republic doesn’t have a monopoly on repression or torture, despite what some of its detractors may think. On the other hand, this book should serve as an eye-opener for those who naively want to believe that the Islamic Republic represents a successful revolutionary/people’s movement. If you read only one book off of this list, this should be the one.

The Future of the Arab Uprisings

by: Joseph Massad (Originally published on Al Jazeera)
The US and its Arab allies are scrambling to control the outcome of the Arab Spring in a way that will prolong their regional dominance [GALLO/GETTY]

A specter is haunting the Arab world – the specter of democratic revolution. All the powers of the old Arab world have entered into a holy alliance with each other and the United States to exorcise this specter: king and sultan, emir and president, neoliberals and zionists.

While Marx and Engels used similar words in 1848 in reference to European regimes and the impending communist revolutions that were defeated in the Europe of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there is much hope in the Arab world that these words would apply more successfully to the ongoing democratic Arab uprisings.

In the case of Europe, Marx ended up having to write the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon in 1852 to analyse the defeat of the 1848 revolution in France. He explained how revolutions could overthrow an existing ruling class but would not necessarily lead to the rule of the oppressed. He analysed the process by which Louis Napoleon was able to hijack the revolution and proclaim himself emperor, restoring monarchy to republican and revolutionary France, as his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte had done before him to the glorious French Revolution of 1789.

Since the end of World War I, European powers and the United States have appointed and removed Arab kings at will. Their actions were always taken to ensure the persistence of these dictatorial monarchies, rather than their removal, and to strengthen Euro-American control and hegemony over the region.

The only seeming exception to this rule was the French removal of King Faisal from the throne of Syria in 1919, ending the short-lived Syrian independence, only for the British to extend to him the throne of Iraq, which he assumed that same year, with the inauguration of British rule in that country.

This Euro-American power would include the granting of Abdullah the throne of Jordan in 1921 and the removal of his son King Talal from it, replacing him with his own son Hussein in 1952-53. The French would dethrone Mohammed V of Morocco in 1953 but would restore him again in 1955 when opposition to his removal weakened their control.

The British would remove Sultan Said bin Taymur in 1970 and replace him with his son Sultan Qabus, who was better able, with the help of the Iranian Shah, the Jordanian King, British and American military support, to quell the republican revolution in Dhofar.

Even the palace coup of 1995 by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani of Qatar to oust his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al Thani, and replace him, received American support and enthusiasm, as it was carried out to strengthen, rather than weaken, the Qatari monarchy.

Imperialism and orientalism

Since World War II, but more diligently since the mid 1950s, the United States has followed two simultaneous strategies to exercise its control over the Arab peoples across Arab countries. The first, and the one most relevant to Arabs, was based on the early US recognition and realisation (like Britain, France, and Italy before it) that Arabs, like all other peoples worldwide, wanted democracy and freedom and would struggle for them in every possible way.

For the United States, this necessitated the establishment of security and repressive apparatuses in Arab countries, which the US would train, fund, and direct in order to suppress these democratic desires and efforts in support of dictatorial regimes whose purpose has always been and continues to be the defense of US security and business interests in the region.

These interests consist principally in securing and maintaining US control of the oil resources of the region, ensuring profits for American business, and strengthening the Israeli settler-colony.

Much of this was of course propelled by the beginning of the Cold War and the US strategy to suppress all forms of real and imagined communist-leaning forces around the world, which included any and all democratic demands for change in the region.

This strategy, which was formalised in the Eisenhower Doctrine issued in 1957, continues through the present. The Eisenhower Doctrine, issued on 5 January 1957, as a speech by the US president, declared the Soviet Union, not Israel or Western-supported regional dictatorships, as the enemy of the people of the Middle East.

To neutralise president Gamal Abd al Nasir’s wide appeal across the Arab world, Eisenhower authorised the US military “to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations, requesting such aid against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by international communism.”

In contrast with its actual anti-democratic policies around the world, the US has always insisted on marketing itself as a force for global democracy. In line with this public relations campaign, the second strategy the US used to advance its anti-democratic policies in the Arab World was the importation of European orientalism, which acquired a central place in post-war US academia.

State Department funding assisted by funding from private foundations would solidify orientalist research that asserted that Arabs and Muslims were incompatible with democracy and that more often than not they love and prefer dictatorial rule and that it would be culturally imperialist for the US to impose democracy on them, leading to the conclusion that it would be best to uphold their dictatorial rulers whose repressive policies, we are told, are inspired by Islam and Arab culture.

Between the billions spent on repressing the Arab peoples and the millions spent to explain academically and in the American media the need to repress them, this two-pronged US strategy in the region since World War II has been coming apart at an accelerated rate since January 2011, a development that continues to cause panic in the Obama White House and manifests in the incessant fumbling of his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who is much despised across the Arab world.

If president Jimmy Carter infamously declared on the eve of the Iranian Revolution in December 1977 that the Iran of the Shah was “an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world”, Hillary Clinton would declare Mubarak’s Egypt as “stable” days before he was overthrown.

Subverting democracy

The anti-democratic US campaign in the region started with the first coup d’état the US sponsored when it overthrew democratic rule in Syria in 1949 and was soon followed by the restoration of the Shah in neighbouring Iran in 1953 in a CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew the government of prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and suppressed the democratic movement in Iran.

As the US was following similar strategies elsewhere in its expanding empire, especially in Guatemala where it sponsored an anti-democratic coup against the reform government of Jacobo Arbenz and unleashed a wave of terror that murdered hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans for the next four decades, it formalised its new strategy in the Arab world through the Eisenhower Doctrine.

Soon after, the US went into high gear suppressing democracy in the region, starting with intervention in Lebanon on the side of right-wing sectarian forces in 1957, moving to engineer the palace coup launched by the young King Hussein against the democratically elected parliament the same year in Jordan, and proceeding to help the Baath party assume power in 1963 in Iraq and massacre thousands in the process.

The defeat of Nasir in the 1967 war was followed by US support for the most repressive Sudanese regime ever under Jafar Numeiri and the suppression of the revolution across the Arabian Gulf in the early seventies with the assistance of the Shah’s forces and the Jordanian army, which stabilised the region for US oil profits and began the road to secure Israel’s supremacy.

In the meantime, the removal of Arab monarchies from power and replacing them with republics would take place through the mechanism of military coups, which, unlike Euro-American interventions, had much popular support. Beginning with the removal of King Farouk of Egypt in 1952 by the Free Officers, the removal of Arab monarchies would proceed with the overthrow of the Iraqi King and the Hashemite royal family in 1958, the Yemeni monarchy in 1962, and ended with the overthrow of the Libyan monarchy in 1969 by Gaddafi.

All other Arab monarchies have persisted, with massive American, French, and British financial, economic, military, and security support, despite a number of threats to these thrones over the decades. While only two monarchies survive outside the Arabian Peninsula, which only managed to lose its Yemeni monarch, all other Arab regimes have a republican form of government.

The US-Saudi axis

The ongoing uprisings in the Arab world today, as is clear to all observers, do not distinguish between republics and monarchies. Indeed, in addition to the republics, demonstrations have been ongoing in Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia (and more modestly in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates), despite the brutal suppression of the major Bahraini uprising by a combined mercenary force dispatched by the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council led by Saudi Arabia.

The situation in Arab countries today is characterised as much by the counter-revolution sponsored by the Saudi regime and the United States as it is by the uprisings of the Arab peoples against US-sponsored dictatorial regimes.

While the US-Saudi axis was caught unprepared for the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, they quickly made contingency plans to counter the uprisings elsewhere, especially in Bahrain and Oman, but also in Jordan and Yemen, as well as take control of the uprisings in Libya (at first) and later in Syria. Attempts to take control of the Yemeni uprising have had mixed results so far.

Part of the US-Saudi strategy has been to strengthen religious sectarianism, especially hostility to shiism, in the hope of stemming the tide of the uprisings.

This sectarianism targets not only Iran but also Arab shias in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and even in Oman and Syria, while simultaneously encouraging anti-Christian zealotry in Egypt. The Sadat and Mubarak regimes encouraged anti-Christian zealots for decades. Part of the ongoing counter-revolutionary efforts is to resuscitate these sectarian forces to break Egyptian unity and bring about chaos.

If the Eisenhower Doctrine insisted in 1957 that the Soviets, not Israel, were the main enemy of the Arab peoples, today the US insists that it is Iran and shiism who are their main enemy. With the US and Saudi-led suppression of the people of Bahrain, the hope is that this American-sponsored sectarian hatred and encouragement of sunni Arab chauvinism would in one swoop render Iran (and not the Arab dictators, their Israeli ally, or their US sponsor) the enemy of Arabs, if not the only enemy of Arabs, and delegitimise at the same time the uprisings in countries with a substantial number of Arab shiites.

The US sponsored this project several years ago with limited success. It would be best articulated by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who warned in 2004 of a “shia crescent” threatening the region. The US and the Saudis are hoping that it could be more successful today.

The French and the British have continued to play important neo-colonial roles in the region, economically, militarily, and in the realm of security “cooperation”. They have strengthened their position by increasing their security and diplomatic “assistance” to their allies among Arab dictators.

The US-supported repression in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and in the United Arab Emirates goes hand in hand with the Euro-American-Qatari intervention in Libya to safeguard the oil wells for Western companies once a new government is in place.

The hijacking of the Libyan uprising and the defection of Gaddafi’s governing elite of politicians overnight to the side of the “revolutionaries” not only casts more than one shadow of suspicion on those claiming to lead the Libyan uprising against Gaddafi’s horrific dictatorship, but also on the Western powers who were Gaddafi’s major allies in the last decade until their recent defection.

The situation today is one of a struggle between the formidable US-Saudi axis, which is the main anti-democratic force in the region, and the pro-democracy uprisings.

The US-Saudi strategy is two-fold: massive repression of those Arab uprisings that can be defeated, and co-optation of those that could not be. How successful the second part will be depends on how co-optable the pro-democracy forces prove to be.

While it is true that revolutionaries make their own history, as Karl Marx famously put it, “they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”

Guarding against the co-optation of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions is the hope of all Arabs today.

The US-Saudi axis will use every mechanism at its disposal to do so, not least of which will be the forthcoming elections in Egypt and Tunisia. The great Arab hope is that Tunisia and Egypt will write a new Revolutionary and Democratic Manifesto for the Arab peoples.

The concern and the fear remain, however, that we may end up with less of a Communist Manifesto and more of an Eighteenth Brumaire.

Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.